Friday, November 19, 2010

Special Needs Playgrounds Gaining Ground

As playgrounds grow and evolve with increasing attention paid to safety and equipment durability, it's important to note that kids with physical limitations need adequate places to play just as much, if not more, than kids without disabilities.

Children who must contend with limited mobility and dexterity need much more carefully designed equipment and facilities. In recent years, awareness of making parts of everyday life more "handicapped accessible" is now commonplace in many areas of everyday life.

And in the wake of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, through which Congress made accessible public facilities the law of the land, focus on accessible playgrounds has naturally followed suit. Creating recreational facilities accessible to all, however still remains an uphill battle in many instances.

Parents of children with disabilities often have to go out of their way to make local accessible playgrounds a reality. The St. Tammany Kids Konnection Boundless Playground in New Orleans is a good example of this.

Initially several parents of disabled kids were dismayed when their school's new playground, completed in 2004, proved inaccessible for wheelchairs. As word spread through the community and parents commiserated, attention soon turned toward establishing a non-school playground where all children can play together.

St. Tammany Parish and nearby communities rallied around the initiative and eventually raised nearly $400,000, well over the average $200,000 it takes to build a special-needs playground. Despite the devastation to the area wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the new facility where kids with disabilities can play with friends and siblings opened a year later.

Accessible designs are more costly, an obvious obstacle toward realizing places like the St. Tammany playground. Things did work out very well in the end -- the facility has a wall for climbing, vine-covered arbor, maze, sensory garden with sound-play instruments, chalk painting, tunnels and a sweetly scented flower patch.

This success story keenly illustrates what it takes to build an accessible playground from scratch. Susan McHugh, who was instrumental in the project from start to finish, sums it up best:

"We can’t sit back and expect someone to do what we need done for our children,” she said as quoted in an article on disaboom.com, which provides information for people with disabilities. "You can’t just assume that your school, or your city or state government is going to do what you need done. It goes beyond that -- it has to come from our passion for doing what is best for our children. Don’t sit back and wait for someone else to do it.”

Boundless Playgrounds, which designed the St. Tammany Parish Kids Konnection, describes itself as "the leading national nonprofit developer of nearly 200 truly inclusive playgrounds in 31 states and Canada."

The key element in a Boundless Playground, as the name indicates, is completely free mobility for all. This is mainly accomplished by ramp-accessible paths that enable handicapped adults to experience play time with kids of all abilities. Building social connections through play is also a core principle that drives the Boundless Playground mission.

The general layout of a Boundless facility incorporates four areas that encourage developmental behaviors. One sector "supports repetitive/looping and gathering/branching out behaviors of children in earlier developmental stages, according to the organization's website, while other areas encourage gathering, planning and social interaction.

The fourth "General Area" is for all children, disabled or not, and most thoroughly puts into praxis Boundless Playgrounds' mission: "To build truly inclusive playgrounds where children -- and adults -- of all abilities can play and learn together in a fun and welcoming environment."