Feature Article - March 2020
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United We Play

Creating Inclusive Play Spaces

By Joe Bush

Beyond the Basics

Sarah Lisiecki, with a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based playground manufacturer, said her company uses those principles and adds to them. Inclusive principles must also take age into account as a disability to be accommodated, she said, and it's important to mesh products and space design.

"Product and playspace design are the most important aspects we're involved with as it relates to inclusive play design, and they really go hand-in-hand," she said. "Without proper products, we won't be able to create a truly universally-designed space.

"However, if we have the best products and a design that isn't functional or equitable, it won't foster the types of situations that drive growth, interaction and engagement. Combining these two aspects creates the best possible outcomes for everyone."

Inclusive play environment requests have increased exponentially over the past five years, said Michele Chandler, marketing director for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground manufacturer, and within that demand has been a higher demand for autism-friendly play areas and structures.

"Specific activities, such as spinners, merry-go-rounds, musical instruments and rocking motion types of equipment are appropriate for children with autism, as well as play environments that provide cozy spots where they can take a break from the activities going on around them," Chandler said.

Begin at the Beginning

Nance said the community raised $1.3 million of the $2 million needed for Explore, and the city provided the rest. But she stressed that not every community needs to spend that much.

"You can build on a smaller scale, so don't be afraid of size and money," she said.

Nance's advice to towns that are mulling an inclusive play space is to collaborate and find a manufacturer that prioritizes inclusivity and is flexible to a community's unique needs.

"Create a team, a committee, and include people who have experience with people with disabilities," she said. "Have a team of resources because you can't do it by yourself. Have a goal in mind, what you want to offer. Not everybody has the same goal."

She said many companies might say they can design and build inclusive structures and areas but don't deliver exactly what's necessary. Thus, the importance of gathering information from all stakeholders and experts before seeking a manufacturing partner. Nance suggests visits to inclusive playgrounds for ideas as well.

"I made very sure that this isn't a special needs playground," said Nance. "This is a playground for all people of all abilities. Someone said, 'We're going to need supervision out there all the time because we have people with disabilities,' and I said, 'Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? We have 27 parks and we don't supervise them.' It's education all the time."

Nance's last statement is another aspect to consider: Make sure the community understands what and who inclusion is for.

Callison said before a community calls a playground manufacturer, it should understand its role and the company's role. "Customers need to know this a collaborative process," he said. "We know the data. We understand the principles by which an inclusive playground is designed, but the customer knows the people who will use it better than anyone. We work together to make sure the play space we build has a long and lasting impact on the community. We want them to be involved, to share ideas, challenge us to do something extraordinary, and to make sure every person is well-served by the playground."

Chandler suggested prospective clients gather some information and answer some questions before picking up the phone:

>> The number of children both with and without disabilities that might be using the space.

>> The total area available for the play environment.

>> Access to the play environment. Will there be accessible pathways from the parking lot or other areas where the playground will be located?

>> What age ranges will be using the equipment?

>> Will adults be using the equipment?

>> Will the space require fencing?

>> Is there adequate shade from trees, or will additional shade be required?

McConkey added that a client should determine what it wants the play space to accomplish. What are their goals for the community? Can they identify the "ability demographic" for their community?

"This information is helpful in interpreting the community's needs and ultimately results in a design that reflects the community's vision," McConkey said.

In Hoover, Nance had all the information needed to get started, and the city and the manufacturer collaborated and tweaked until the final product was ready.

"Money didn't limit us," said Nance. "With the goal of being inclusive, we didn't have to leave out something to make it accessible or inclusive. We just made sure that what we used was usable by everybody or there was an opportunity for anybody to experience that same feeling on some kind of equipment."

The experience opened Nance's eyes, as experienced as they are. She realized ramps don't necessarily make an inclusive playground.

"I'm all about do it right the first time because when I go look at the playgrounds we didn't do right, it's ramped, it's accessible, but has no play value," she said. "The people are who win, the kids win, if you make a good product."

Callison said Hoover got a lot of things right. "There are two phrases we hear a lot lately: 'All Means All' and 'For Us, By Us,'" he said. "Customers want to make sure everyone has a chance to play, and to realize the benefits of active, social play. And people who support and advocate for persons with disabilities want to be involved with the design process.

"In Hoover, parents and families with children affected by a disability worked closely with the city leaders to ensure there were play activities and amenities specific to their needs, and to make sure all children could play alongside one another to realize the benefits of peer relationships during play." RM