Feature Article - July 2021
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Play Along

Inclusive Playgrounds Help Us All Play Together

By Dave Ramont


Moore, who is a full-time wheelchair user herself, also explained that it's difficult to create thrill and climbing challenges in a comfortable way for children with disabilities. But she said they've started to use a belted material in an innovative way on some of their play equipment, which "allows those kids who are transferring out of their mobility devices—which we want to encourage and make rewarding—to traverse, build their motor-planning skills and get to the highest point of the structure to engage in play."

She also pointed out that while woodchips are considered ADA-compliant, many people with mobility devices can't easily navigate through a space using loose-fill surfaces. "Even if I'm not climbing the tallest climber, I want to get there and see my friends do it. We feel turf and rubberized surfacing are much more comfortable and make for more inclusive spaces."

Headquartered in California, The Magical Bridge Foundation is a nonprofit organization that advocates for, designs and builds playgrounds and parks for children and adults of all ages, abilities and sizes. After being frustrated by the lack of inclusivity at playgrounds in her area, Founder Olenka Villarreal was determined to create an outdoor space that both her disabled and non-disabled daughters would love. It took Villarreal and her team of volunteers several years of researching and raising funds, but in 2015 the flagship Magical Bridge Playground opened in Palo Alto, Calif., and it now draws 25,000 visitors a month.

The playground features a treehouse and bridge, slide mound and custom two-story playhouse that are all fully accessible. Accessible equipment includes disc and bucket swings, spinning features, wide slides, a sway boat and a merry-go-round flush with the ground. There's tactile slides and surfaces, retreat spaces, a 24-string laser harp and other auditory features, seamless paths and turf, play zone descriptions featuring braille, original interactive artwork and plenty of shade. They've also added the Dignity Landing, an innovation at the bottom of a slide enabling users to scoot over with dignity while their wheelchair is brought down. And because predictability matters for many who play there, the playground is divided into zones. There's the Swinging Zone, Sliding & Climbing Zone, Music Zone, Spinning Zone, Kindness Corner, and the Playhouse and Play Stage.

According to Jill Asher, executive director at the Magical Bridge Foundation, another Magical Bridge playground has now opened, with one more slated to open this summer and another early next year. Additionally, construction begins on two more next year. The foundation also looks to advise other interested communities nationwide. "We receive inquiries everyday about design and consulting projects," said Asher. "With that said, our team is very small—five full-time employees—and can only take on a few projects at a time." Some of these projects involve new spaces, and some want to make their current playgrounds more universal. "Most want to reimagine their existing spaces because there is already infrastructure there: parking, restrooms etc."

Another initiative launched by the Magical Bridge Foundation with the goal of improving and diversifying open spaces is PlayParks, created for areas two acres and upward. Asher said they've worked with three cities in California to apply for funds to redesign their entire parks—in lower socioeconomic communities—and make them truly inclusive. "Our hope is to transform these spaces and make them a safe, welcoming community hub for everyone."

"After community engagement meetings with input from hundreds of people in each community," Asher continued, "we have reimagined their parks to include soccer fields, dog parks, picnic and BBQ areas, multi-use sports fields, community gardens, walking and rolling paths, native trees for shade and so much more. And of course, an all-inclusive playground."

Indeed, when discussing efforts to make parks and playgrounds truly inclusive, we must also look at communities that are underserved—places where kids don't have access to safe play spaces in their neighborhood. In 1995, two young children in Washington, D.C., died tragically when they became trapped in an abandoned car with faulty locks on a hot day. They played in the car because their neighborhood had no playground, and the nearest rec center was too far. Darell Hammond heard this story and was so moved that he assembled volunteers and built a playground in the neighborhood in four days out of lumber, tires and other odds and ends. The kids loved it. The next year, he officially founded KABOOM!

To date, KABOOM! has built or improved over 17,000 play spaces, engaging more than 1.5 million community members and serving over 11 million kids. "Kids deserve the right to access places where they can thrive and just be kids, especially in the current state and situation that we're living in. Having an outlet and safe space to socialize and expend energy and have a release is critically important to those living in extremely toxic environments," said DeMelo.

She explained that while they offer several different types of programs, their flagship program pairs funding partners with communities that are interested in providing new playgrounds for their neighborhoods. "We engage them in a planning process that ultimately ends with a build event where the play space is built with a number of volunteers on site in just one day. That's our standard Build it with KABOOM! model."

Another priority of KABOOM! is creating spaces for teens. "Teens have been often overlooked, and they're such a huge part of our community that need their own specific spaces," said DeMelo. She explained that while they utilize certain offerings like multi-sport courts and adventure courses, they also work with teens and community members to design their own space, which might manifest itself as a hangout spot that includes seating and shade and perhaps some messaging boards. The creation of artwork and murals might be another undertaking. "We always have additional room to create additional amenities onsite, and we think that co-creation and design is instrumental in defining success to their spaces." She added that they've seen teens taking the lead as mentors as well, designing and creating spaces for other kids. "We've seen some really cool, innovative new play infrastructure items come out of this."