A Splashing Good Time

Inclusive & Multigenerational Splash Play

By Joseph Bush

In an article titled "Making a Splash: Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Aquatic Venues," posted on the website of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), Bill Ramos, faculty lecturer in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at Indiana University, identified construction trends in aquatic facilities as indicative of the popularity of swimming as a recreational activity.

"Recently, the construction of traditional competitive environments is down while community waterparks and aquatic centers are up," Ramos said. "Increasingly common in these community aquatic facilities are splash parks. Splash parks are less expensive to build and operate than traditional pools, and bright colors and themes make the splash park fun and enticing. Many splash parks are designed with a zero-depth entry, enabling people with mobility impairments to use the same entrance as other visitors. The lack of pooling water also encourages people of all ages and abilities to experience the fun."

Ramos said with the increase of newly constructed community aquatic centers, it is crucial for facility staff to understand the needs and expectations of their guests with disabilities. People with disabilities have very specific expectations for their visit including:

>> Accessibility from the parking area and main entry to the reception desk, locker rooms, pools and concessions.

>> Customer service from aquatic facility staff who are sensitive and knowledgeable about the needs of people with disabilities.

>> Areas and features for physical activity and exercise promoting wellness and improved fitness.

>> Change in facility policies to allow for disability-related needs such as adapted equipment and assistive devices.

An article at LDOnline.org titled "Developing Recreational Skills in Persons with Learning Disabilities" said, "the chance to learn from and to socialize with non-disabled peers has been cited as one benefit for individuals with disabilities participating in integrated and fully inclusive programs. Research in the 1980s determined that positive attitudes of children not having disabilities toward peers having disabilities were cultivated or increased when involved with an integrated recreation activity."

Inclusivity for those with special needs is more than simply allowing them to participate in life as fully as those without special needs; according to a 2016 master's thesis by Summer Esseff of California State University-Monterey Bay, there are many benefits of therapeutic recreation for people of all abilities, physically and intellectually.

"However, it has special benefits for people who have special needs," she writes. "Some of their benefits include: perceived sense of freedom, independence and autonomy; enhanced self-competence through self-worth, self-reliance and self-confidence; better ability to socialize with others, including greater tolerance and understanding; enriched capabilities for team membership; enhanced creative ability; enhanced ability to read others' expressions and feelings; enhanced perceived quality of life. Physical benefits also include: increased lung capacity, reduced resting heart rate, lower blood pressure, decreased body fat, increased lean body mass, increased muscle strength, and improved structure and function of connective tissue such as ligaments, tendons, cartilage and joints."

Making Splash Play More Inclusive

Chris Thomas, marketing director for a San Marcos, Texas-based manufacturer of splash play and other aquatic play products, said making splash pads as inclusive as possible—going beyond minimum ADA requirements—is about zones, the feel of the water and the ability for all users to control the water.

Thomas said much of what his company has learned about special-needs-friendly splashpads comes from its study of the needs of smaller children. Adjustments have to be made to water volume in dump buckets and spray speed and temperature, and there has to be a separation from larger kids. These factors have to also be considered for people for whom a noisy, active environment can be traumatic.

The basics are important, Thomas said, and the most basic features for splash pads are the sprays. He said ground sprays are the least intimidating because they don't direct water from above onto users' heads.

"If it's a child with autism who has a hard time being around people, then part of that dedicated zone has ground effects that are softer, lower, less intimidating and more soothing," Thomas said. "That's why we break up the pad into zones.

"With ground sprays, that's going to appeal to a very wide range of people, just like interactive fountains do. When you start getting into the taller features and more interactive stuff, you have to make sure that the handles are at the right height and accessible no matter your ability. We take all that into consideration and design accordingly."

Thomas said space limitations can force a design with a lot of features combined in close proximity—buckets and water guns and ground sprays and intermediate sprays and slides. In these cases, with less flexibility for zones, details matter more, he said. Buckets have to be different sizes, for those who want less or more volume dumped on them, and slides have their own considerations.

"If you have a water play structure, make sure there's lots of activities or spray effects coming off the structure in case someone in a mobility device can't get on the slide," Thomas said. "Then you're talking about surfacing. A lot of these structures are not designed for someone in a wheelchair to get up into and then slide down, so we try to provide lots of play events around the structure so that no matter who you are, you're feeling the effects, whether you're being sprayed on or dumped on without ever having to get onto a slide."

More basics for a splash pad to be as inclusive as possible, according to Thomas: have spray activators that can be rolled over; plenty of shade for caregivers; and of course, ease of passage from the parking areas. Access to splash pads is usually the responsibility of the municipality, operator or contractor, Thomas said.

"As a manufacturer we can say, 'We can put that into our design. Where is your parking lot going to be? Are you accommodating for getting to the pad? How far is it going to be from facilities?'" he said. "We can draw that into our plan set but we have to know that in advance. We certainly make all those recommendations through the design process because they may not be thinking about it, and if they're not and you don't show them what it looks like, then they may forget."

Inclusion Means Playing Together

Steve King, founder of a Delano, Minn.-based manufacturer of playground, splash play and other park products, was part of the development team for the ADA guidelines for playgrounds. His company formed an inclusive play advisory board comprised of therapeutic professionals, parents of children with disabilities, individuals with disabilities and designers who are dedicated to inclusive design solutions.

According to Ingrid Kanics, a member of that advisory board, with the addition of splash play products to the company in 2015, the board began to work to design spray pads and splash play equipment to benefit children and families of all abilities.

"We believe that every person has the drive to play regardless of their ability," Kanics said. "By intentionally designing splash play environments, we help welcome individuals of all abilities and encourage social engagement during play."

Elements that encourage cooperation and social play are important within the design of splash pads, she said. Families who have a child with a disability say their top priority is to have their child play with others and develop friendships. "That can only happen if there are group play opportunities designed into the environment," said Kanics.

Kanics said the advisory board believes in a few basics to achieve this group play environment:

>> Seamless transitions from surface to surface ensure that everyone can move through the splash pad freely, whether they use a wheelchair, walker or stroller, or are a toddler just learning to walk.

>> Considerations are made for how children play at different ages. This means understanding childhood development and what features best support the play skills being developed at each age.

>> Understanding how a given medical condition might define the play skill level of a child or the type of play they might be drawn to.

"Children with disabilities may lag behind their peers in their skill development, so the design of the splash pad has to support the developmental range of all children who will engage in that play area," she said.

Kanics stressed that inclusive play goes well beyond ADA compliance. The ADA is a minimum starting point for design, she said, but design has evolved beyond those requirements to embrace the needs of the community.

"Inclusion is about bringing together children with typical development as well as those with an assortment of disabilities so that they can learn and play in the same space," said Kanics.

ADA primarily focuses on physical access and supports for those with auditory and visual impairments, she said, while inclusive design strives to support visitors of all ages with a wide variety of medical conditions—children with Down Syndrome, autism, sensory processing disorders, etc.

"Once we understand how these children interact with the splash play products, we can design an environment that provides everyone with a quality play experience," Kanics said.

Inclusion should also take into account aging caregivers or wounded warriors who may bring children to the splash pad, said Kanics; supportive seating close by is crucial so that these individuals feel that they can provide adequate supervision while having their needs accommodated.

"Our goal is to continue providing splash play opportunities for individuals of all ages and abilities," said Kanics. "Inclusion goes beyond access. We will continue to focus on the entire family—toddlers up to grandparents—as well as individuals with a variety of medical conditions. And through conversations with experts, families and the end users—kids—we will design products and splash pad environments that enhance all visitors' experiences."

Alicia Heiser, city manager and engineer for the town of Winnemucca, Nev., which opened a splash pad in 2018, said the project's inclusive focus was age-based.

"After doing some research, we found that splash pads could be designed for all ages without the safety concerns of swimming pools," she said. The splash pad features a very wide variety of components, she said, from very low-volume, low-pressure components to a large dumping bucket. The dumping bucket features a twist—a swinging board under the bucket that redirects the water randomly.

For toddlers, the 2,400-square-foot wet area has spray features that resemble a ladybug and turtle. Heiser said the older kids gravitate to the dumping bucket and water cannons.

The splash pad is open during daylight hours, so it can be accessed with anyone's schedule, said Heiser.

"Our community has really enjoyed the splash pad," she said. "Our goal was to make it free for the public to use. It has given parents an option for free water play without the cost and safety risks of taking their children to a swimming pool."

Get Inspired

In 2010 a park that has set the standard for recreational inclusivity opened in the San Antonio area. Inspired by their physically and cognitively challenged daughter Morgan, homebuilder Gordon Hartman and his wife Maggie used funding from the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation to establish Morgan's Wonderland.

The 25-acre haven for people with special needs and their families, caregivers, friends and the general public cost $36 million and is completely wheelchair-accessible. Featuring more than 25 elements and attractions, including rides, playgrounds, gardens, an eight-acre catch-and-release fishing lake, 18,000-square-foot special-event center, 575-seat amphitheater, picnic area and rest areas throughout, the park has welcomed nearly 2 million guests from all 50 states and 73 countries.

The park has garnered international attention and awards, and its success has been the catalyst for two inclusive additions: Morgan's Inspiration Island, a $17 million waterpark opened in 2017, and the 102-acre Morgan's Wonderland Camp, slated for a mid-2020 opening.

"The whole idea is we emphasize inclusion, and we want those with and without disabilities to be able to come together in a fun environment where there's no stereotypes, no strange looks, no discomfort whatsoever," said Bob McCullough, communications director for Morgan's Wonderland and Inspiration Island.

"To do that, we want to make sure that those with different abilities can do as much and have just as much fun as those with what would be considered normal abilities. We coined new terminology—we call everything 'ultra-accessible.' We want there to be no barriers whatsoever to one's enjoyment either at Morgan's Wonderland or at Morgan's Inspiration Island. Ultra-accessible is very important to us, and that's the yardstick we use to make sure that anyone and everyone can have a great time at our parks."

The Gordon Hartman Foundation took what it learned from Morgan's Wonderland to create the waterpark. Modeled after the research done for the original park by a team of special needs educators, therapists, doctors, ride manufacturers and families of people with special needs, Morgan's Inspiration Island has unique features that make water play available for all and shows how others can work these accommodations into their splash pad and waterpark inclusivity plans.

Morgan's Inspiration Island has five tropically themed splash pads, a River Boat Adventure ride and extensive support facilities, the most important of which are its waterproof wheelchairs. Guests in wheelchairs who may have previously been unable to visit a splash park have the opportunity to privately transfer out of their chairs into three types of waterproof chairs—one of them the PneuChair, powered by compressed air and developed by Morgan's Wonderland in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Lab (HERL).

This gives guests the opportunity to enjoy Morgan's Inspiration Island and not risk damage to their personal, battery-operated wheelchairs. According to a HERL press release, HERL, a joint effort between the university and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, happened to be at work on a prototype of the PneuChair when representatives from Sports Outdoor and Recreation (SOAR), a nonprofit organization established by The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation to oversee Morgan's Wonderland, called for help in developing powered mobility for the new splash park.

"Their needs and our research were essentially an ideal match," said HERL Director Rory Cooper. "The potential to open opportunities for people with disabilities who need powered mobility to access splash parks, waterparks, beaches or pools is transformative."

"The PneuChair uses a simpler design without a lot of electronics and software," said Brandon Daveler, a Pitt graduate student researcher and the lead mechanical design engineer on the project. "If something goes wrong, any of the components can be purchased at your local hardware store."

The World Waterpark Association (WWA) gave its 2017 Leading Edge Award to Morgan's Inspiration Island for its unique design and revolutionary waterproof wheelchairs. USA Today readers voted Morgan's Inspiration Island best new water attraction of 2017 in the paper's "10 Best" competition. In September 2018, TIME Magazine named Morgan's Inspiration Island to its list of 100 World's Greatest Places, and San Antonio Magazine gave its 2019 Best of the City Award to Morgan's Inspiration Island for "Best Theme Park Concept." Both Morgan's Inspiration Island and Morgan's Wonderland received the 2018 Barrier-Free America Award presented by the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

McCullough said the foundation is open to all organizations and operators that want to learn how inclusivity can be integrated into water recreation, but he acknowledges the hefty price tag can be a barrier.

"Their hearts are in the right place, but it does take a lot of money to build places like this and even more to run it," he said.

The Hartman Foundation did not use any government money, so those interested in adding inclusivity in recreational water areas could explore alternate funding and also can plan a smaller scale or a piecemeal approach. In addition to the special wheelchairs, Morgan's Inspiration Island offers accessories, like chest straps, foot blocks, laterals, dry bags and trach covers.

"In addition to providing our waterproof chairs, we offer seven different accessible changing rooms," said Jessica Lizzardo, general manager of the waterpark. "Two are equipped with Hoyer lifts for individuals needing assistance in transferring out of their chairs to our chairs. Also, out of our five accessible splash pads, one offers warmed water to keep guests with a sensitivity to cool or cold water comfortable."

Lizzardo said adding water to an accessible recreation area presented some new challenges: different sizes of waterproof wheelchairs, using the right materials that went into their manufacture, the temperature of water and the Texas sun.

The idea to build Morgan's Inspiration Island came directly from guest interactions and comments, she said.

"Many guests have a difficult time dealing with the heat, so water was a logical addition," said Lizzardo. "Besides, our water-table attraction at Morgan's Wonderland—WaterWorks—was not nearly big enough, nor was it sufficient to fully cool off guests. On hot days, we literally had guests climbing into WaterWorks like it was a tub."

The foundation decided that with so many guests with different abilities looking to cool off and have fun in the water, splash pads with no swimmable attractions were the best choice. This made finding adequate lifeguard staff a non-issue, said Lizzardo, and guests can still cool off and have interactive fun while being monitored by employees.

"We train our staff members to have friendly smiles and open hearts," she said. "Some of our management personnel are CPI-trained. However, most of our guests with special needs are accompanied by their loved ones or caretakers who know them best. We are truly blessed to work with an incredible employee team that shares a passion for our mission of inclusion." RM

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