More Than Access: Designing Inclusive Parks

September 30, 2021, Feature, by Logan Garrett

2021 October Feature More Than Access Designing Inclusive Parks 410

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Arch Street Park in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, goes beyond ADA standards to provide a truly inclusive play experience

Over the course of the past decade, park and recreation professionals have been creating playgrounds that go beyond basic Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. In years past, playgrounds were expected to meet basic standards regarding ramps and surfacing, but communities around the country have begun to build play environments that are truly inclusive for people of all ages and abilities. This recent increased focus on creating inclusive play spaces underscores the difference between inclusion and accessibility.

The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design stipulates that playground equipment and facilities constructed or altered on or before March 15, 2012, must be accessible and offer a range of play experiences to children of varying abilities. As important as this development was for providing access for differently-abled individuals, it does not require a playground to provide equipment that is truly inclusive. A 2014 survey conducted by a playground manufacturer found that more than half (57 percent) of the people questioned mistakenly believed that playgrounds are required to have elements designed for children with Down syndrome, sensory disorders, and visual and hearing impairment. 

Accessible playgrounds allow people with disabilities to visit the play area, whereas fully inclusive playgrounds provide the opportunity for everyone to actually use and interact with the playground equipment. In other words, inclusive play is not solely about physically accessing an environment, but also intensely focused on what happens once an individual gets there.

“A playful environment is an environment where people collaborate. It’s an environment where people get along and become more welcoming,” comments Tom Norquist, PlayCore senior vice president of innovation and business development. “It’s necessary to provide play spaces where people of all abilities can play together, because play, on a fundamental level, eradicates social barriers that might have been there previously.”

More and more, people are realizing the disparity in access and inclusion. According to a poll conducted by NRPA, close to 9 in 10 Americans say communities should offer all-inclusive play options at playgrounds across the country. Park and recreation departments have recognized this need and are building inclusive play spaces for the communities they serve.

Communities Embrace Inclusive Play

An excellent example of a city going above and beyond ADA standards of accessibility is Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The City of Lawrenceburg recently reopened Arch Street Park, and the new park features a number of inclusive play elements that are accessible to people in mobility devices, including swings, seesaws and ziplines. A colossal amount of collaboration was required to complete this project, with city officials and community organizers partnering with the playground manufacturer GameTime to provide the inclusive play equipment. Additionally, landscape architects and sales representatives from Sinclair Recreation oversaw the installation of the playground.

Beginning in 2020, the Lawrenceburg community set out to revamp Arch Street Park. This led to forming the Arch Street Park Playground Committee, which consists of area residents, young students and community members. Led by Lawrenceburg Mayor Kelly Mollaun, members of the committee included Sallee Johns, Joe Vogelgesang, Erin, Nicole and Taylor Ratliff, Grace Brown, A.J. Waltz, Connie Knue, Tina Zint, Bonnie Vise, Guinevere Emery and Mario Todd.

“[The] project took a lot of time, with great input from our playground committee, to finalize a design that could be utilized by different age groups for ultimate fun and healthy experiences,” says Mayor Mollaun.

This dedicated group set forth to review existing playground infrastructure conditions, address recreation issues in the area and improve accessibility for their outdoor play environments. Their main goal was to create a playground design featuring inclusive, fun and exceptional play experiences to add to the city’s award-winning parks. After a year of planning, design and installation, the universally designed Arch Street Park reopened in June 2021.

“Inclusion was always a priority for us,” says Emery, communications director for the City of Lawrenceburg. “We’ve always been a community dedicated to supporting exceptional recreation environments, and part of that is providing inclusive play spaces for people in the region.”

The playground was made possible and partially funded by a GameTime Playground Grant Funding Award of $190,403, with the City of Lawrenceburg committing an additional $550,026 toward the Arch Street Park Inclusive Playground project.

“On behalf of everyone at GameTime, congratulations on your new playground,” says GameTime President Spencer Cheak. “Your commitment to inclusive play and outdoor recreation for people of all ages and abilities is a model for communities around the country. Everyone involved in making this possible is a true community champion, and we are honored to partner with you to make play possible for everyone.”

According to Emery, multiple members of the Arch Street Park Playground Committee have connections to individuals with disabilities, and this perspective has had a dramatic impact on their desire to create an inclusive playground. In order to comprehensively address the developmental needs of children, the city relied on best practice research conducted by PlayCore, particularly their seven principles of inclusive playground design. This research specifies principles that ultimately create an inclusive and embracing play experience by intentionally providing opportunities for physical, cognitive, communicative, social/emotional and sensory development.

“It was great to develop options for their park based on feedback from the community. We worked with people and kids of all ages and abilities to create the playground that is going to be perfect for this community and it’s been such a blessing to be a part of a project that is going to affect so many people,” says Jeff Branham, a regional sales associate with Sinclair Recreation.

Due to their commitment to evidence-based research on inclusion and social equity, the Arch Street Park received a PlayCore National Demonstration Site (NDS) recognition for Inclusive Play. PlayCore’s NDS network includes playgrounds that thoughtfully support playful pathways, nature play, adult fitness, youth physical activity, and inclusion in outdoor play and recreation settings. The vast amount of inclusive playgrounds included in the NDS network exemplifies the surge in inclusive playground installations during recent years.

Building Inclusion

When discussing inclusion, the vast majority of people will immediately think of providing access to those with physical disabilities, but playgrounds like Arch Street Park challenge that notion and highlight the many aspects of inclusion and equity. In addition to physical disabilities, inclusive play spaces should also address the needs of individuals with cognitive, communicative, social/emotional and sensory disabilities.

This can be accomplished in a variety of ways — namely with the addition of play elements like sensory panels, which stimulate senses such as touch, movement, smell, taste, sight, hearing and balance. Similarly, human-powered electronic devices provide sensory experiences in which users engage in some sort of physical activity to “power-up” the action. This may include turning a handle, repeatedly pressing a foot pedal or rotating a wheel. These innovative products feature sensory-rich experiences, like lights and music, storytelling, or social games.

In addition to inclusion for people of all abilities, playgrounds like Arch Street Park are built for people of all ages. Multigenerational play is incredibly beneficial for numerous reasons for both adults and children. Studies show that children who play with adults demonstrate greater creativity and higher levels of language and problem-solving skills. Recent studies also indicate adults who engage in play with children experience drastic psychological and health benefits, including improved mood, greater cognitive skills, enhanced relationships and reduced stress.

Playgrounds play an important role in children’s development and quality of life, and everyone deserves the opportunity to partake in play. Communities around the world are joining the City of Lawrenceburg in providing thoroughly inclusive play spaces for people of all abilities, ages and backgrounds. In hopes of addressing the needs of the 7.3 million school-aged children with disabilities, park and recreation professionals are constructing inclusive play environments that go well beyond basic ADA compliance.

Logan Garrett is Media Relations Coordinator for Mace+Carmichael.