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Inclusive Playgrounds - Then and Now

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 10:36am
Last updated
6 months ago
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Inclusive Playgrounds - Then and Now

Last week, I went on a road trip with my daughter through the Midwest visiting college campuses. Along the way we also visited different playgrounds in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Indiana. We were busy.

When we got to Michigan, I realized that I had not been there for 10 years. The last time I was in Michigan, I was working on the Able to Play project (ATP). ATP was a project of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in honor of their 75th anniversary. They contracted with Boundless Playgrounds (BP) to create approximately 23 inclusive play spaces. Boundless Playgrounds sub-contracted the creation of indoor play spaces to the Center for Creative Play of which I was at the time the Executive Director.

I spent much time in Michigan over the years of 2003-2005. We did training, worked with specific communities on community development and fundraising, and designed interesting play spaces.

Boundless Playgrounds, at the time, was at the cutting edge of inclusive playground design. They were a national non-profit located in Connecticut and led by a mom who had a son with severe disabilities. (He passed away at a very young age.) They were the first organization to move their model from their first playground in memory of Jonathan out to other states and communities interested in building inclusive playgrounds. Shane’s Inspiration started right after Boundless Playgrounds did.

Boundless Playgrounds, as it was originally configured, went out of business a few years ago. PlayCore is now running the non-profit with their subsidiaries as the preferred vendors.

Michigan Welcome CenterI remember the work we did with Able to Play as being exciting and innovative. So I decided to revisit some of the playgrounds while in Michigan to see how the design has held up to time. I visited two of them, one at the Michigan Welcome Center at New Buffalo and the other in Ann Arbor. What I have determined is that the basic design of Boundless Playgrounds was the first generation of inclusive playgrounds and we have moved on to a second generation.

At the time of the Able to Play project, Boundless Playgrounds described their playground criteria:

In terms of barriers, federal guidelines require that 50 percent of a playground’s elevated structure be accessible. On larger playgrounds, 25 percent of the elevated play platforms must be ramped. By comparison, BP requires that at least 70 percent of play activities serve children with physical disabilities, allowing for greater “integration” of all children. However, BP play spaces are not just about wheelchair access. They are designed to address the needs of children with sensory and developmental disabilities, too. They are designed to be fun, rigorous, and challenging places for all children—not just special needs kids.

The Welcome Center playground is a very typical BP design. It has:

  • A fence around it
  • Pour-in-place surfacing
  • Swings with a combination of belt seats and accessible swing seats
  • A ramped structure
  • A place to play under the ramped structure
  • Balancing activities around the structure
  • Numerous interactive panels

Ann Arbor School - courtesy of Mara Kaplan

It is a very accessible playground. A person using a wheelchair can get anywhere on the structure, and if he can be transferred out of his chair, he can safely swing. I would say, however, it isn’t a very inclusive playground. Although the plan for the design was for it to be rigorous and challenging, it isn’t. As one Special Education Recreation Specialist told me recently, “We don’t like going to fully accessible playgrounds; they are too easy and boring for most of our children.” The only movement activity is the swings. The quiet area is under the structure and there really isn’t a range of challenge on the climbers.

It is interesting to note that the playground I went to see in Ann Arbor at High Point School is under renovation. It appears they are adding a more challenging structure and maybe more sensory items. I couldn’t tell whether the water and sand were new additions or were there from the beginning.

In contrast to these first generation playgrounds, I also went to visit two Unlimited Play playgrounds in the St. Louis area. Unlimited Play has a similar start—parents of a child with a disability saw an accessible playground on the East Coast (probably a Boundless Playground) and decided they wanted one in their hometown. Once it was built, other communities wanted to replicate what they did. Unlimited Play started in 2003 (Boundless Playgrounds started in 1997).

Tree Top Playground - courtesy of Mara KaplanI went to see Tree Top Playground in the City of Clayton which opened in 2010 and Cornerstone Playground which just opened this month and isn’t quite finished. The difference between these second generation playgrounds was great.

Here are some of the features of an “Unlimited Playground:”

  • A fence around it
  • Pour-in-place surfacing
  • Swings with a combination of belt seats and accessible swing seats
  • A ramped structure
  • Balancing activities around the structure
  • Numerous interactive panels
  • Themed design to spark imaginative play
  • A group swing
  • Stainless steel slides and roller slides
  • Freenote musical instruments
  • UV protective shade structures
  • Spray, water splash play area to help everyone stay cool

As you can see, Unlimited Play has taken the original thoughts of inclusive playgrounds, and with the input of more parents and therapists as well as watching children engage on playgrounds,  added more sensory items and more challenge.

Cornerstone Playground - courtesy of Mara KaplanWhen I was at Cornerstone, there were 12 and 13 year olds there playing on the group swing and the regular swings. They were having a great time.

It was great fun to stop off at all of these playgrounds on our trip. It was interesting to see how 10 years of thought, research, parental , and child input has really changed our thoughts on what inclusive playgrounds can be. We could have never done it without the push from Boundless Playgrounds. Thank goodness for organizations like Unlimited Play, Shane’s Inspiration, and Harper’s Playground who continue to push the design envelope.

Just for the people who are wondering, my daughter liked both St. Louis and Ann Arbor and will be applying to both schools.

Journey to Inclusion

Mara Kaplan is the driving force behind Let Kids Play, a consulting firm working to ensure that all children have excellent play opportunities. She is an educator, a parent of...