Feature Article - November 2008
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More Than Child's Play

Thinking Outside the Sandbox

By Kelli Anderson

No Child Left Behind

Education has also been an essential ingredient in another kind of destination playground—those designed by Shane's Inspiration, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the creation of universally accessible playgrounds. At all their playgrounds, education through a relational, inclusive play experience is a key component. Through school field trips, monthly community events and school-based disability awareness programs, children of all abilities come together to do what kids do best—play.

While many playgrounds strive to meet the ADA's requirements for accessibility and try to pay attention to such details as curb cuts or accessible surfacing, these measures often fall short of creating play options for disabled children with their able-bodied peers once they are able to reach the play equipment. Inclusion or universally accessible designs strive to make every aspect of play possible for every child.

"It's not enough to simply provide standard post-and-deck equipment and a way to get to the structure," said Brad Thornton, director of project development with Shane's Inspiration based in Van Nuys, Calif. "The play elements must be designed in such a way that interactive opportunities allow kids to develop friendships and build developmental skills while inspiring both active and imaginative play."

To that end, such features as multiple entrances to a structure, providing sensory elements and paying attention to the way equipment is utilized and positioned is key. For example, positioning stepping pods for able-bodied children next to an accessible ramp for mobility devices allows anyone to compete in a side-by-side race.

Wider slides and seesaws, preferably at wheelchair height, permit caregivers to sit next to or accompany a child while they play. Multiple versions of swings—from tire swings to those offering back and head support—ensure that anyone can enjoy one of play's simple pleasures.

And while there are definitely components designed just for those with special needs—drinking fountains, restrooms and picnic tables to name a few—there are also elements that simply draw kids of every kind. Sensory activities and features are not just for children with disabilities, they're for everyone at every age.

Textures of different shapes and colors embedded into a panel become an eye-catching, tactile work of art. Twinkling wind chimes, a giant abacus or a streaming water-wall are all magnets for any curious child.

Sand play is yet another enormous favorite. While some designs may address the problem by raising areas for wheelchair access, others, concerned about not restricting able-bodied children, design ground-level transition spaces and back supports so all children can play together without impediment.

For the Chicago Park District, inclusion has become the goal for all their playgrounds with a newly-opened playground in Mount Greenwood, Ill., showcasing this commitment to inclusive design.

"Each year before designing the upcoming projects, we evaluate the new playground equipment for interesting options that could be incorporated into our designs," said Linda Daley, deputy director of capital construction for the Chicago Park District. "We strive to include a mix of more traditional elements such as slides and swings, which are still sought after by children, with new innovation such as climbing nets and overhead elements to exercise the child's mind and body."

But traditional is hardly the final result. Their latest project, opened just this fall, sports a myriad of eye-catching features. Children and caregivers are greeted by seven colorful mosaic totem poles and can walk a main spiral pathway that culminates in a 15-foot tall interactive spiral bell with chimes.

A massive hillside play area hosts a variety of inclusive-friendly activities from a hillside slide, climbing net and pipe climber to sculptural instruments including a 14-foot tall cymbal, steel drums and xylophones. The interactive spray pool with a center spray feature ensures that the all-important element of water is also part of the fun.

"Mount Greenwood is home to one of six therapeutic recreation programs within the Chicago Park District that draws children and adults of all abilities and skill levels," Daley explained. "The design goal is to bring these users together through a variety of opportunities and challenges with interactive play components which focus on the development of sensory, motor and social skills."