Feature Article - March 2020
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United We Play

Creating Inclusive Play Spaces

By Joe Bush


Dee Nance has been a recreational therapist for 30 years, so her career mirrors the evolution of inclusive play.

A community services officer for the city of Hoover, Ala., Nance was heavily involved with the creation and installation of a $2 million play area that opened in May 2019. The 15,000-square-foot Explore Playground at the HooverMet Complex has been a magnet for not only families but communities throughout the South that are considering adding inclusive play.

"If anybody wants to know anything we're happy to share," said Nance.

The playground is a national demonstration site and warms the heart of Nance, whose chosen field and certification sprung from the country's desire to help injured World War II veterans.

"I've seen the transition from institutionalization to community," she said of recreation for kids with disabilities of all kinds. "Just because someone is born with a disability, you don't just put them in a room and lock them up. Now they're a part of the community and valuable citizens, and they're respected and understood.

"Parents are becoming more aware that there's opportunities for a child when they have a disability or a different look or different walk. Parents are becoming more involved, and the resources, while they're not perfect and they're not free, they're much better. There are early intervention programs for just about everything. Peers are more accepting. It's just a part of people they meet."

John McConkey, marketing insights manager for a Delano, Minn.-based play equipment manufacturer, said inclusivity is gaining popularity for practical reason as well. "We recognize that cities are fiercely competing to attract new businesses, an educated workforce and a sustainable tax base," he said. "To do that, they need to be known for offering a thriving, livable community. And they recognize their parks are a key asset to help attain that goal.

"Inclusively designed parks and playgrounds make them more functional and fun for more people. It increases social equity and makes cities more socially and economically sustainable. We believe all parks and play spaces should be designed to be as inclusive as possible."

Playground manufacturers have been on board the trend for quite some time. Using the research of Utah State University's Center for Persons with Disabilities, and taking what each community needs into consideration, companies can design and install structures that offer something for every disability.

"The market interest in inclusive play spaces continues to grow," said McConkey. "While we support the goal that all play spaces be as inclusive as possible, we recognize that it is ultimately the community that must define what 'inclusive' means to them and how they define it within the constraints of their project. We see more and more communities seeking to make their parks and play spaces more inclusive."

Start to Finish

According to Nance, Hoover's push for an inclusive playground began when a resident asked the mayor for one. The town had an accessible playground, said Nance, "with no real play value."

Nance reached out to the town's specialists, and asked for their ideal inclusive playgrounds and took their ideas to brainstorming sessions with a play equipment manufacturer and its local rep. She contacted user groups and nonprofits, and went as far as Omaha in an 11-playground tour to gather ideas. In all, the process took two years to Opening Day, she said.

"We went to programs that serve people of different disabilities and said, 'When you do therapy with these children and send them home, what do they need?' and they were very excited," Nance said. "We would not have been as inclusive had we not reached out to our community, to people who serve and people who use the equipment."

It's hard to imagine any stone was unturned: The Explore Playground has a multi-level, accessible treehouse named Carly's Clubhouse; accessible musical instruments; sensory play activities, including interactive panels with adaptive switches; and a variety of swings, slides and climbers.

The surface of the play area is rubber to provide accessible routes of travel throughout the space. There are shade structures on the playground equipment, as well as throughout the many seating areas. There are charging stations throughout the play environment so parents can charge communicative devices, wheelchairs and other mobility devices, or mobile phones.

The Rockin Robin is a cocoon-like chair for anyone who wants a comforting place to rest, and at the entrance there are ground tiles with sign language that says "Welcome to Explore," with English underneath the hand signs.

"We think through five developmental domains when designing a space: physical, social-emotional, cognitive, communication, and sensory," said Kent Callison, marketing director for the Fort Payne, Ala.-based playground manufacturer that Nance worked with to create the Explore Playground. "We look for ways to incorporate each of these elements into a play space so everyone can be included and enriched through the experience of play."

For those disturbed by loud noises, there are quiet, motorized paper towel dispensers in the restrooms. The restroom also includes a changing table with a capacity of 300 pounds, for families with an older child or an adult. The motorized table lowers to 12 inches for those who use a mobility device.