All in the Family
Ensuring Locker Rooms & Restrooms Are Fit for Everyone
By Stacy St. Clair
For years, Stacey Eisler heard the commotion outside her office at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Her work space was located near the men,s locker room, and she could hear mothers expressing their exasperation all day, every day.
The women stood outside the door yelling their sons' names over and over again. "Tyler? Tyler? Are you in there?" Their voices would sing that frustrated chorus for 15 minutes without respite. When that didn't work, the women resorted to tapping male patrons on the shoulder and asking them to check on their sons' well-being.
"I then realized the frustration in the minds of parents with children of different genders," said Eisler, the groundbreaking Y's deputy director. "It wasn't just mothers with their sons or fathers with daughters, but also parents who had both sons and daughters."
To remedy the situation, Eisler insisted the facility's 1999 renovation plans include a family locker room, which would reduce the logistical problems that arise when parents and their kids recreate together. Such facilities have become a godsend to both patrons with small children or older relatives in need of assistance.
Like most family locker rooms, the 92nd Street Y's facilities consist of a large open space equipped with private changing rooms. There are signs proclaiming it a co-ed area, as well as dedicated space outside the door for stroller parking.
"When you're bringing young children for an activity, it can be very stressful," Eisler said. "We want to make it as easy as possible. Everyone seems to really understand the concept. It's a great amenity that's also very convenient."
By creating the family locker room, as well as a changing area specifically for use by teenage girls, female patrons benefited greatly from the renovation. While facility managers always expected this group to reap the reward from additional locker-room options, they were pleasantly surprised to see men take advantage of the new design, too. Suddenly, more fathers participated in activities with their daughters because they could share a changing area with the young girls instead of sending them into the women's locker room unsupervised with the hope they'd be OK.
"The family locker room really solves a lot of problems for dad," Eisler said. "It has really helped dads take their daughters to swim lessons."
The success of family locker rooms and bathrooms comes as no surprise to the American Restroom Association (ARA), which has long advocated their inclusion. The organization advocates such amenities—which they refer to as "companion care facilities"—because they help a wide variety of people: parents with small children, patrons with disabled relatives and elderly people who need spousal assistance.
They also address parents' uneasiness with the idea of sending their children into a locker room by themselves. No matter how different we wish the world could be, there's no denying that leaving a child alone in a locker room could lead to a terrible problem. Conversely, bringing a child of the opposite gender into a locker room could also make other patrons uncomfortable or create inappropriate interactions.
Family restrooms are so important to the ARA, the group constantly receives phone calls from people asking for "toilet mapping," a tool that shows travelers where they can find family restrooms or locker rooms across the United States. Unfortunately, the association doesn't have such a map, but it no doubt would fill a demand, according to Bob Brubaker, the association's program manager. No one likes to be confined to their house, but they need to have options if they decide to go out and enjoy themselves.
"The number of family restrooms is clearly growing," Brubaker said. "There are groups of people who are very concerned about privacy. They have problems using public toilets. A private, companion care facility is a good answer for them."
At the Westlake Recreation Center in suburban Cleveland, seniors have embraced the family locker rooms since the facility opened nearly a decade ago. The center features one large space with eight separate dressing-room-type spaces. Some of the rooms are shower areas with benches, while others have toilets. A few are handicap-accessible areas where patrons can just roll in with their wheelchairs and take showers.
The family area has become extremely popular with elderly patrons, who like the extra space and amenities such as handicap-accessible showers. One couple used the facilities for two weeks while their home bathroom was being remodeled. The man, who was wheelchair-bound, found it a convenient alternative to using the men's locker room.
"Many of our seniors use these locker rooms for the privacy factor," said Ann Hollows, the center's assistant manager. "It's a great option for them."
Facility managers have received some complaints from patrons about unruly children inside the family locker room. The center has addressed the concerns by prohibiting kids from entering the area unless they are accompanied by an adult.
At the Cleveland County YMCA in Norman, Okla., recreation managers are enjoying similar success with their new family locker room. After a 1996 renovation, the facility now has five locker rooms: one for adult women, one for adult men, one for young men ages 8 to 17, one for young girls ages 8 to 17 and one for families with children younger than 8.
The family area accommodates up to six broods at a time, and everything inside was designed with parents in mind. The door to the adjacent pool area, for example, requires patrons to punch in a key code before it can be opened. Such a security measure prevents little ones from running into the natatorium without their parents' knowledge.
"We've thought of everything," said Heather Cook, the marketing and public relations coordinator for the Cleveland County YMCA. "It helps families and it enhances the value of the YMCA membership for people."
Patrons consider the facilities so comfortable and conveniently located, some try to use them even when they don't have children with them. Their popularity fulfills a prophecy Cook made when the plans were first announced several years ago. She told patrons the facilities would change the way they thought about recreation—and she was right.
"Our members have been tickled with the results," she said. "It's important for families to get together and do things. We've made it so much easier for them to do that."
Following guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act will get any design headed in the right direction. However, there are many other things to consider. Are the lockers deep enough to hold a diaper bag? Is there enough space in the changing area for both a wheelchair and a caregiver to maneuver?
Recreation managers also should consider creature comforts such as coat hooks, couches, televisions, etc. Basically, if you offer a service or amenity in your adult locker room, it's wise to provide the same services in your family facilities.
"Just like design is important in a regular restroom, it's important in a family-friendly facility as well," Brubaker said. "Some people like a family restroom to take care of medical needs. For example, having things like absorbent pads available is a good idea. People also want shelves—and ones where babies can't be changed."
The most important aspect of any family locker room and restroom is its convenience. If it's not centrally located or not spacious enough, families simply won't use it. For example, if your facility has an aquatic component, the family room must walk out onto the pool deck. Otherwise, parents will use the adult facilities rather than have their brood traipse through the building sopping wet.
"Location is critical," said Craig Bouck, president and CEO of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. "Make it as convenient as you can, so it doesn't look like a second thought. If you put it in the wrong place, it's going to be under-utilized."
Bouck advocates a cabana design for family locker rooms, meaning there's one large space with several private dressing stalls. He suggests using glass doors and signage so older patrons—ones not intimately familiar with the family-style facility—know to change in the changing room, not in common-space locker area.
It's important to make the common area as large and open as possible. Parents don't want nooks and crannies where their children can disappear from sight. The open area is important from a safety perspective, too, because thieves will find it difficult to break into lockers in plain view.
"You want to be able to see right down the middle of it," Bouck said. "We now make them with glass doors so that older folks don't get confused."
When designing a family bathroom or locker room, it's also important to select materials just like you would any other bathroom or locker area. The fixtures and floors must be durable, graffiti-proof and water-resistant.
Experts recommend selecting solid surfaces so the staff can easily buff out scratches. It's also wise to install under-mounted sinks, which allow you to take a towel and wipe excess water into the sink because there's no raised lip and no loose piece of caulk around the edge that can be stained or become a maintenance problem.
In aquatic or showering facilities, select flooring that is clean, sanitary and slip-resistant. The floor should be able to tolerate constant exposure or water. Shower flooring also must be waterproof. Seamless systems are excellent options for preventing buildup in tiled floors. Some manufacturers even offer flooring with an anti-microbial additive that protects the floor from fungal staining, odor and inferior hygiene. In addition to custom convenience, a swimsuit water extractor is an economical and easy way to prevent excess water from hitting the floors and lockers.
In family-based facilities, it's also important to provide customers with a way to get help in an emergency. If a patron's child or disabled family member becomes ill or over-heated in the humid atmosphere of the locker room, there often isn't a way to contact anyone—and chances are they don't want to leave their loved one alone to run out and find help.
This potential problem can be easily solved with emergency alarms. These systems are like fire alarms, but they have long cords reaching to the ground in case the person has fallen and cannot get up. Another useful safety feature is a phone—either for general dialing or that connects directly to the front desk and emergency assistance. If you have the staff for it, experts recommend circulating an employee periodically through the locker rooms and restrooms. This enhances security, safety, customer service and sanitation, as this staffer can make sure to check that everything is as it should be.
"Through design," Bouck said, "you can take care of a lot of issues."
If you don't have the space or resources for a family locker room, it's important to stop and think about how your facility handles children in opposite-gender locker rooms. Many recreation managers grapple with this issue, struggling with questions like "how old is too old?" No one, for example, wants little boys running around unattended in the men's locker room, but others may worry about privacy issues if the boys show up in the women's room with their mothers. The same could be said for girls who visit facilities with their fathers.
Fortunately, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) has a few tips for recreation centers and parks without family facilities:
Establish and enforce a policy. While it's up to you to determine which age limits work best in your community, IHRSA suggests a sample policy like this one used by a member: "Children 5 years of age and over are not allowed in the locker rooms of the opposite sex. Children 4 years of age and under may be in the locker room of the opposite sex only when under the direct supervision of a parent or responsible adult—and then only for the minimal time necessary. Under all circumstances, parents must be aware of the need to protect the privacy of others. Please see a Manager on Duty for suggestions on how to ease the transition at this age in a way that is comfortable for both you and your child."
Install a separate, full bathroom for families or others with special needs. This can also help accommodate the elderly and meet the Americans with Disabilities Act's accessibility standards. (For example, a woman with arthritis may need her husband's help changing her clothes.) If demand for this room is high, hold the key at the front desk so staff can ensure that only those who truly need to use the room have access.
Allow parents to change young children in your child care area. You might also want to consider offering free short-term babysitting (e.g., a 20-minute limit) while a child's opposite-gender parent showers or changes.
Consult a pediatrician or other physician when deciding on any age cut-off. Basing your policy on recommendations from local experts gives it credibility with patrons and offers you peace of mind.
Make staff members available to accompany children over the age limit into the gender-specific locker room. If you select this option, make sure to post signage around the facility so parents know this valuable service is available at their request.
If you don't set age limits, make sure you address the issue. Create awareness of this sensitive matter by posting signs in your locker rooming reading something like, "Parents: Bringing an opposite gender child into this locker room may cause discomfort to other members. Please use discretion."
Reconsider the family locker room. Yes, it might cost a little more. But you can't put a price on patron safety and comfort.
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