Common Grounds

Inclusive Play on the Upswing

By Wynn St. Clair

For more than 100 years, Americans have recognized the benefits—physical, emotional and cognitive—of a well-equipped playground. Yet, for much of that century, those perks were only available to children with legs agile enough to climb ladders, arms strong enough to hang from the monkey bars and social skills keen enough to embrace the park's many offerings.

Though accessible playgrounds have generated industry buzz for decades, there has been major progress toward "inclusive" or "universal" parks in recent years. Progressive recreation managers realize that accessibility is more than just ensuring that a wheelchair can reach the play equipment easily or that the park satisfies the bare minimum established by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They recognize that accessibility is not enough. Modern playgrounds must be inclusive, designed specifically to ensure that children of multiple abilities can play together—not just alongside one another.

That means providing rich tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual and auditory experiences for children with autism. It means swings with chairs for those who can't sit up on their own and gliders wide enough for wheelchairs. And it means rethinking your layout with an eye toward making everyone feel as if they belong in the playground.

"You have to look at it as an opportunity to not only improve physical function, but just as importantly, social skills as well," said Tim Miller, CTRS, a certified recreational therapist and recreation superintendent for Pasadena, Texas. "The benefits are endless."

Miller can give witness to such benefits, as Pasadena opened its first universal-access playground in January. The 7,000-square-foot playground features a wide array of play components, most of which are accessible by wheelchair. The ground is covered with a pour-and-play material that provides a smooth surface for wheelchairs and scooters, with some give for children who fall.

The playground, among other things, boasts a roller slide. Unlike a traditional slide that creates friction on a child's skin, this slide works like a roller belt and provides valuable tactile stimulation. It's also wide enough for two people to use, so a child can go down with the help of a brother, sister or caregiver.

For children in wheelchairs, the playground boasts handcycles and foot pedals. There are also pull-bars that have been designed specifically for patrons in chairs. Another element, Sway Fun, can hold wheelchairs as it glides back and forth.

Most everything is on ramps, with 24 of the 36 elements directly accessible from the ramps. There is a sandbox and activity table brought up to wheelchair level so all visitors can use it. A second sandbox has an accessible crane device so children in wheelchairs can dig. And activity boards throughout the park provide a sense of audio stimulation with bells and chimes.

"It really shows that the administration realizes we're here to serve a whole population and not just a segment of it," Miller said.

Being Green

Kermit the Frog swears it's not easy being green, but that hasn't stopped progressive recreation managers from thinking that way when it comes to playgrounds.

An increasing number of open spaces have been turned into natural playgrounds, which are designed to blend indigenous vegetation and features with creative landforms and fun diversions. They are intended to bring children back to nature, offering a wide range of open-ended play options that encourage creativity and imagination.

Anyone who has climbed a tree, rolled down a hill or leapt into a pile of leaves has experienced natural play. Experts, however, worry those activities are becoming outmoded in the 21st century, losing a popularity contest to video games and the Internet. In detailing the assortment of behavioral problems children unacquainted with the outdoors exhibit, author Richard Louv described the condition as "Nature Deficit Disorder" in his book Last Child in the Woods.

Natural playgrounds, or playscapes, are a suggested antidote for the disorder and technology's stronghold on children by encouraging kids to simply get outside and play.

The Aaron Family Jewish Community Center in Dallas, Texas, embraced that premise when it recently began fundraising efforts for a natural playground. Organizers are hoping to break ground in August for a park that will boast a miniature natural landscape with rolling hills, stone walls for climbing, gardens, water play and natural rock piles, among other features.

"We knew we had to get our children back to nature and we had to do what is right by our children," said Laura Seymour, the center's director of camping services. "Kids playing on traditional playgrounds aren't getting the same amount of exercise that kids are getting in natural playgrounds because nature is always changing, it's never boring."

Indeed, experts believe playscapes offer a wide range of health benefits such as increasing physical activity, fine and gross motor skills and cognitive development. They also are used in horticultural therapy for rehabilitation of mental and/or physical ailments.

The natural playgrounds also offered the Jewish Community Center a chance to build an inclusive play area for all children, including those with special needs. Studies show that children with autism benefit from playscapes because they give them a chance to escape the uncomfortable sensation of everyday life and relax in a natural setting while building leisure, social and vocational skills.

"A lot of times, we create playgrounds that make us, as adults, feel good, and they're not actually what's right for the kids," Seymour said. "Nature grounds are inclusive because almost everyone can enjoy some aspect of nature in one form or another."

The park also has traditional features such as slides and swings because officials wanted to make sure it wasn't considered a special needs playground only. Rather, they wanted a place where the entire community could play, regardless of need. To bolster the community feel, officials selected a train theme for the overall play area in homage to Pasadena's railroad history.

The project was initiated several years ago by the Pasadena Rotary Club, which donated $100,000 toward a universal playground. City officials also secured a Community Development Block Grant totaling $88,000 and used city funds to cover the remaining $170,000.

"The City of Pasadena really tries to cater to its residents with special needs," Miller said. "You name it, we try and do it. And since we're all-inclusive, we don't turn anyone away. We don't tell people who don't have special needs that they can't use the facility. We just decided we are going to dedicate this specific facility to the people of our community with special needs."

And the community has responded overwhelmingly. Even before the park opened, the new play area already was a popular site with area children and their parents. As a recreation therapist, Miller appreciates the endless opportunities that the playground offers everyone.

"Hopefully this will be a model and people will want to do what Pasadena does to include all abilities," he said.

By introducing inclusive or universal playground equipment that works different muscles and encourages creative play, recreation managers are boosting the physical, social and emotional opportunities that make playgrounds such a vital part of a child's overall health.

Different playground equipment, for example, lends itself to varying levels of activity, making it easy for kids of all age groups and ability levels to physically benefit from outdoor play on a playground. Research has shown that the physical benefits of play include learning reflexes and movement control; developing fine and gross motor skills; increasing flexibility and balancing skills; as well as learning to walk, run, jump, throw, climb, slide and swing. These activities all lead to improved physical health and fitness. Studies show that children who are more physically active are healthier when it comes to blood pressure, cholesterol and insulin levels—important health issues for all children regardless of their abilities.

Likewise, there are many important things that children derive from free play that cannot be seen on the surface. One of these is a child's emotional development. Research has pointed to three areas where play helps children develop: building self-confidence, releasing emotions from trauma and experimenting with various emotions.

But, more than anything else, inclusive playgrounds provide children—especially those who are often segregated from their peers—a chance to improve their social skills by playing with others. Studies show that while playing in groups, kids learn social roles and cultural rules, develop appropriate cooperation skills, and learn a shared system of symbols, including verbal and body language. When children develop and test relationships, they learn self-control, compromise and negotiation skills. Kids also learn survival skills, independence and acceptable group activities to build on as they grow up, experts say.

Those were the benefits officials in Dothan, Ala., wanted to offer when they opened their Miracle Playground last year. The project was an offshoot of the town's Miracle Field, a baseball diamond where mentally and physically challenged residents could enjoy America's pastime. The field serves an entire community because its rubber surface allows it to be used by both the local baseball program and kids who use wheelchairs and crutches.

The ballpark was so successful, officials decided to extend the universal recreation philosophy to a new playground. Money, however, threatened to become an obstacle. The field project, which also included another park, had cost about $1.1 million, with a significant amount donated by the local Rotary Club. It felt too awkward to go back to the generous civic organization to ask for more money.

"Fortunately, they were one step ahead of us," said Kim Meeker, assistant director of operations for the Dothan Department of Leisure. "They called me and asked me to do the research on what it would take and to bring them this latest funding opportunity."

The city soon formed a committee that included parents of kids with disabilities and special education teachers. Meeker also researched the issue heavily, calling around to learn everything he could about universal playgrounds. After studying the issue for about six months, they came up with a plan and set about raising the $600,000 needed to build it.

"One thing I learned is that, in general, kids like to be high, especially kids in wheelchairs because they're so used to being low to the ground," Meeker said. "Our goal was to get the kids as high as possible, which was quite a challenge. The problem was that ramps can only be so steep. Also, the more ramps you have, the more expensive it was going to be. We ended up building up the land and built up berms on the sidewalk. The kids are already three feet high when they get up to the playground itself."

Recreation officials then enlisted the entire community to construct the Rotary Miracle Playground as more than 400 people volunteered to help with the building. Volunteers included 50 soldiers from the area Army base and local firemen and police officers.

"The whole thing was just a great experience for everyone," Meeker said. "It just really makes you feel great about the community you live in."

In addition to traditional slides and climbers, the plan purposefully included many different sensory experiences to appeal to a wide range of users. Auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, swinging, spinning and balancing opportunities were included, to name a few.

The playground boasts musical instruments and miniature backhoes for playing in the sand, as well. For those sensitive to the elements, some play areas have ample shade to comfort the children. The city also opted to make the ramps extra-wide so two wheelchairs could pass on them. There are also large decks with crow's nests to provide exceptional elevated play spaces.

For children with autism, the city installed roller slides that provide therapeutic pressure to muscles as they go down. The playground's initial plans also called for colorful artwork and surfacing throughout the park until officials learned patterns can often distract and frustrate autistic children and prevent them from playing.

Improve Your Safety Score

Each year, more than 200,000 people receive emergency room treatment for injuries stemming from playground equipment. The most recent study of 2,691 playground equipment-related incidents reported from 2001 to 2008 indicated that falls are the most common hazard pattern (44 percent of injuries), followed by equipment-related hazards, such as breakage, tip-over, design and assembly. Other hazard patterns involved entrapment and colliding with other children or stationary equipment. Playground-related deaths reported involved entanglement of ropes, leashes or clothing; falls; and impact from equipment tip-over or structural failure. To address this issue, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers nine tips to improve your playground's health:

  1. Make sure surfaces around playground equipment have at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand or pea gravel, or are mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials.
  2. Check that protective surfacing extends at least 6 feet in all directions from play equipment. For swings, be sure surfacing extends, in back and front, twice the height of the suspending bar.
  3. Make sure play structures more than 30 inches high are spaced at least 9 feet apart.
  4. Check for dangerous hardware, like open "S" hooks or protruding bolt ends.
  5. Make sure spaces that could trap children, such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs, measure less than 3.5 inches or more than 9 inches.
  6. Check for sharp points or edges in equipment.
  7. Look out for tripping hazards, like exposed concrete footings, tree stumps and rocks.
  8. Make sure elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, have guardrails to prevent falls.
  9. Prohibit children from wearing bike helmets on playground equipment. CPSC has reports of two strangulation deaths that occurred when the child's bike helmets became stuck in openings on playground equipment, resulting in hanging.

"We wanted everyone to have a good time so we ended up with a monochromatic blue surface instead," Meeker said. "The whole thing was truly a learning experience for me."

Traffic at the playground was slow during the first month because people didn't understand the park's offerings, Meeker added. Many thought it was only for children with special needs, but they soon learned otherwise. The word is out that it's the best playground in town, so now it's not unusual to have more than 200 kids playing there on a weekend.

"We are just overrun, it is so popular," Meeker said. "The reaction has been unbelievable. It's the kind of park that people visit from all over the southeast and across the nation. It doesn't just serve our area. It gets used by people all over the country."

Recreation officials in Lakeland, Fla., have seen a similar response to their first inclusive playground. The project began after two mothers approached the parks and recreation department to ask for playgrounds their children could actually use. Yes, the existing parks were accessible, but there wasn't much they could do there.

After researching the matter, park officials received permission from the city manager for the project. Approval, however, came with a warning that the city did not have the money for the $1.9 million playground.

"Since that's never stopped us before, we decided to raise the money," said Pam Page, Lakeland's assistant director of parks and recreation.

To help with the financing, the parks department won a $300,000 grant from the state and another $300,000 donation from the local Rotary Club. Still short of their goal, officials came up with a creative—and colorful—way to raise the rest of the funds.

In October 2006, they launched a public art project called "Kaleidoscope," which placed butterfly sculptures throughout the town.

Thirty-five sculptures—with wingspans of 5 feet to 7 feet—dotted the community in an effort to raise awareness and funds for the project. Organizers thought the butterfly motif perfectly complemented a fundraiser for a children's playground.

"Just like no two children are alike, no two butterflies are alike either," Page said.

The community reaction was overwhelming. The project raised more than $600,000, with some sculptures sold at auction and others becoming an integral part of the Lakeland landscape. The project also led to a partnership with Home Depot, which donated a substantial part of the playground's landscaping.

"The community became really involved, and they joined us in our fundraising efforts," Page said. "After more than two years of fundraising, there was heightened awareness about what an inclusive play area is."

With butterflies becoming an indelible part of the playground's image, park officials opted to incorporate the theme into the park itself. The park—named Common Ground—is designed like a butterfly, with activity areas grouped into lobes like those on a butterfly wing. The lobes have climbing equipment, swings, a quiet story-time area, a music area and a section for adventure play. The butterfly's spine, or the body, is a trellis with benches for caregivers.

The design breaks from tradition by refusing to segregate the park into age groups. Instead, it's split into easy, intermediate and advanced play areas. "That way an 18-year-old with Down's Syndrome, who knows they're 18 and wants to do things like other 18-year-olds, will feel included," Page said.

The park also was designed to minimize the use of transfer platforms where children are lifted out of their wheelchairs and use ramps instead. Progressive parks are moving away from such platforms because they put children in weakened positions and also draw attention to the disabilities.

There is a reading room area complete with colorful stools and a great big bunch of benches where teachers can come and read to their students. Music is piped throughout the entire park in speakers hidden in rocks and frog sculptures. It's also stimulating for the visually impaired as the landscaping includes plants with various textures and smells.

"It is designed around social play, but it was also very important for us to recognize that not all kids can handle the stimulation of social play, like children who might be on the autism spectrum," Page said.

"We have an area where these kids can meander and go to be alone while still being able to observe what's going on," she added.

When it opened two years ago, CommonGround became the sixth inclusive playground in Florida and the first one to be open to the public. Park officials always knew their project was different, but they didn't know how unique it was until the city's risk management representatives asked them to obtain the policies and operations at other universal parks and they couldn't find any community with a similar approach.

The park has become so popular, busloads of children are often brought to the playground. CommonGround's comment box is filled with glowing reviews from people all over the world, as well. But the biggest compliment came from one of the girls whose mother petitioned for the park.

After cutting the grand opening ribbon, the girl pulled herself out of her wheelchair and scaled Gopher Mountain, an 8-foot hill covered with synthetic grass. Kids go up the mountain with the help of a lattice rope and then slide down.

The girl, who once told her parents there was nothing for her to do at Lakeland's parks, became so engrossed in the CommonGround experience, her mother briefly lost track of her at the park—another first.

"I knew then that we had succeeded." Page said. "This is a play experience—that's really what it is. It has been a fabulous opportunity for us to be able to provide this experience."

The project has become so important to Lakeland park officials that they want to help other communities with their designs. They're willing to offer advice on fundraising, synthetic surfaces, equipment or any other topic that would help build inclusive playgrounds elsewhere.

"Our goal is to have Common Ground in as many places as people will build them," Page said. "We want to share this experience with kids everywhere."

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