Designed with Heart: Inclusive Playgrounds

We spent all day at a playground when I was a kid. We would run, climb, jump and chase one another at the playground close to my childhood home. I never gave the tanbark, metal equipment, or two-step entrance a second thought.

Looking back, I can remember now the kids who never played with us because they couldn’t access the playground. It wasn’t until my own daughter had so many challenges with play spaces I realized that a playground is not one size fits all.

Our daughter has an intellectual disability, developmental delay, and tremors along with balance and coordination issues. She couldn’t sit on a standard swing when she was younger. She fell easily on uneven surfaces and couldn’t keep up with her peers on most playgrounds. Our trips to the playground usually ended in tears. My son had a very different play experience since he could play on any type of playground.

My daughter taught me that all kids play, no matter their ability. On a special education playground, you too can see how the kids play, communicate and enjoy their time together. But play should not mean the kids are separated because of the equipment or ability. And a playground design that doesn’t consider all abilities means some kids and families are left on the sidelines.

When we moved from the Bay Area to a small town in Arizona, I never imagined I’d get so involved in an inclusive playground design. Our town set out on an endeavor to build a multi-acre park with a 10,000-square-foot playground at the center. I noticed community members asked for an inclusive design and handicapped equipment on the Town’s Facebook page. My experience at different playgrounds with my own children and the residents’ comments inspired me to get involved in the project. The timing was perfect because they were still collecting community input for the large park project. My journey began with building awareness among the—town team, design teams, and town council with the help of other community members.

Everyone plays together at an inclusive playground

Why Inclusive Play?

Active play is so important for a child regardless of ability. It supports physical, social, cognitive, and sensory development.

An inclusive playground offers the opportunity for all children with all abilities to play alongside one another. They also give parents and grandparents a place to meet, socialize and you guessed it, play.

The elements include more than ramps because a thoughtful design has a rubberized ground cover for access to equipment that offers multiple ways for all to interact with one another. There’s something for everyone and everybody can play together.

Evolving Perceptions

Inclusive equipment designed so everyone can play

Every great story of inclusive play has a naysayer. It’s the person who doesn’t think the expense is necessary, ADA compliance is enough, or that kids without a disability will not play on the inclusive equipment. That’s when city representatives, community members, and parents can change these perceptions with their own stories about play.

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans have a disability. Some disabilities you see and many you won’t. That’s why it’s important to talk about disability and inclusion when we start to develop or refurbish playgrounds. Our stories teach and build awareness about who lives in our communities.

The inclusive playgrounds of tomorrow are built because of the awareness we create today.

And the truth is these playgrounds are costly. Creating the vision to build an inclusive playground in your community will motivate people to get involved in fundraising ideas and grant research. A story will change perceptions and galvanize others to help find ways to offset the funds a town or city may not have available.

Our town council approved the grant partnership making it possible for the rubberized ground cover for the playground.

My town received a generous $130,000 donation from Banner Ironwood Medical Center to fund the rubberized ground cover that provided safe access for all to the inclusive play equipment.

It was our community stories that piqued the interest in the partnership and it was the medical center’s support of inclusive play that made the partnership a reality.

Building Stronger Communities

An inclusive playground design is so meaningful to a parent with a child who has a disability. It shows them that they’re valued in their community and that everyone counts. Parents as much as children need to socialize and these playgrounds provide that opportunity for everyone to socialize among their peers while experiencing the health benefits of play.

These playgrounds have a reach far beyond just play because they give every child an opportunity to flourish in their community. Each interaction with a person who has a disability builds understanding. Children learn that we can all play together and that everyone matters. The inclusive playground becomes a resource for families since they provide the social, physical, and quality of life every strong community needs.

Designed with Heart

Harness swing at inclusive playground.
From harness swing to the big girl swing!

The inclusive playground located in Queen Creek, Arizona was designed with heart. It started as a long-shot possibility and turned into a journey of compassion and understanding.

The stories from the community and the moms who joined the stakeholder meetings created awareness. Many people were involved in helping the inclusive playground come to life. The designers, project managers, and engineers shared their own stories and many learned about inclusion from their coworkers and peers. Each and every one of them took this project to heart because everyone involved knew it was what our community needed. The park opening was an exciting day for all. It was also a day we celebrated the importance of inclusive play in our community.

Inclusive playgrounds are being built across the nation and world because people have determination, compassion, and heart. It’s been one year since the inclusive playground opened in our community.

Our playground story became a remarkable collaboration between residents, town staff, design teams, and our local medical center. People joined this project with different levels of expertise and knowledge to create a play space that everybody in the community will enjoy for years to come.

September 1, 2019 was the 1-year anniversary of the playground opening.

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