A Park for All Abilities

January 31, 2016, Department, by David Buzzell

A park patron plays at the elevated sand table while others enjoy the shaded sand box and custom designed learning wall.When you hear “inclusive playground,” what comes to mind? Frequently, the “inclusive playground” label is given to traditional playground structures that have incorporated accessible design principles that are often centered on individuals who use wheelchairs or mobility devices. Make no mistake, traditional inclusive and accessible playgrounds should be applauded because they provide places for play, development and socialization for individuals who might not otherwise be able to participate in these activities.

However, when you consider the data related to individuals with disabilities, do these traditional design principles provide opportunities for all individuals with impairments, limitations or challenges? That is the very question we asked ourselves in 2008 when a civic organization approached us, the Round Rock Parks and Recreation Department, with a $1,500 grant for a swing for children with autism. 

The Issue

One of the biggest challenges we faced as we started designing the Play for All Abilities Park (PAA Park) in 2008 was trying to communicate to our citizens, council members and business community that an inclusive playground shouldn’t only be for those with visible or well-known disabilities, such as individuals who use assistive devices or who have physical differences. It should accommodate the spectrum of disabilities, including cognitive, developmental or communication impairments, to name a few.   

The Process

While the park and recreation industry and playground manufacturers should take pride in the strides made over the past six to eight years, inclusive play and universally designed playgrounds were very much in their infancy in 2008 with regard to product availability and research. With that in mind, the Play for All Design Task Force was created to ensure the final design would address the developmental needs of as many individuals as possible. The task force included teachers and therapy specialists in the educational setting, therapy specialists and professionals in the medical setting, parents of children with disabilities, playground manufacturers, therapeutic recreation professionals and design professionals. 

The different skill set and background each task force member brought to the project enabled our in-house park designers to understand the stimulation and challenges for the spectrum of children and adults who would be using the park. This was one of the most important processes/elements in the development of the PAA Park and led to a number of changes in the final design.

In 2009, we worked with various civic organizations and park advocates to form the Play for All 501(c)(3) Foundation. The foundation was a critical element in our fundraising efforts, as well as our marketing and community awareness initiatives related to the PAA Park. Members of the foundation used their networks to secure meetings with numerous business and corporate entities, which resulted in more than $100,000 in corporate sponsors and one in-kind donation of construction services valued at more than $350,000. Combine these with more than 2,000 community volunteer hours and the city of Round Rock built the $1.3 million Play for All Abilities Park with slightly more than $600,000 in city funds.   

The Park

The site selected for the PAA Park was a centrally located, 15-acre community park that was easily accessible off a major arterial roadway. It was relatively flat, heavily wooded with several specimen Live Oak trees and adjacent to a major creek corridor. In addition, the regional trail system for the city/county ran through it, allowing for different transportation options for those visiting the park.

The final design was a 55,000-square foot fenced playground, designed in a series of pods, each with a different developmental focus:

Retreat Pod — designed as a place of refuge/retreat for individuals who might get over-stimulated. It was designed around five large specimen trees and includes play elements that mimic therapy equipment intended to de-stimulate.

Rock Band Pod — designed to facilitate social interaction, non-verbal communication and confidence building through a series of instruments installed on a stage with lawn seating to create a performance-like setting.  

Sensory Pod — designed with a series of elements that provide a spectrum of sensory experiences, including a learning wall, sandbox with buried treasures and texture walk with five different walking surfaces.

Dennis’ Dream Playscape Pod — named after the child who first approached the city in 2006 for a boundless playground, this is a more traditional accessible playground structure with shade and poured-in-place surfacing.

Swing Pod — designed with four different swing bays: wheelchair swing, molded swivel swing, belt swings and bucket swings.

Village Pod — designed with buildings, street signs, roads, crosswalks and site furnishings, this pretend village has eight buildings that are replicas of actual businesses in the community and includes play elements inside each building that teach life skills in a fun, safe environment.

Some park-wide design elements include color-defined wayfinding signage with braille, detectable warning strips at the entry to each pod, limited seating adjacent to play elements to encourage parent participation in play, and preservation of several 200–300 year old Live Oak trees.  

The award-winning PAA Park is enjoyed by close to 1,000 people per day on average and has become a huge sense of pride for our community. If you are in the process of developing an inclusive playground for your community, I would encourage you to:

  • Go beyond the traditional inclusive playground. Create something special!
  • Involve your business, education and medical community in the park development process.
  • Create a design task force with a variety of individuals from different backgrounds.
  • Dream big and create a park that will make a positive impact on ALL individuals who use it!

David Buzzell is Assistant Director of the Round Rock, Texas, Parks and Recreation Department.