A Better Way to Play
By Aitana Yvette P. Mallari
It’s one of those crisp Sunday mornings. The Beaubiens arrive at a park, the nearby lake winking at them with sunlight. John Beaubien, a graphic design and marketing specialist at Ability360, nurses an iced coffee as he looks back at his wife, Kelly, and two sons, Nicholas, 6, and Scott, 4.
“Ready?” he asks. The kids take off.
The park is one of three the Beaubiens plan on visiting. Although they’re miles apart, ADA deemed them accessible. Accessibility is important to the family, since John was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy; he’s now a full-time power wheelchair user.
In 2000, the US Access Board and the Americans with Disabilities Act released standards that every playground should have in order to be inclusive. Requirements include ground-level equipment, ramps and smooth surfacing for wheelchair users like Beaubien.
The trip ended with 100 miles on the odometer and mixed feelings. There was the good: such as supported swings and musical instruments. One park even had braille and sign language panels paired with translation games. On the other hand, there were ramps that led to nowhere, surfacing in seas of mulch that felt like a bad game of ‘the floor is lava’, and a lack of fencing and safe spaces for overstimulated children.
Good or bad, finding any of these playgrounds would have been close to impossible without the help of accessibleplayground.net, an online directory for playgrounds in the US and around the world. It was created by Mara Kaplan, principal of Let Kids Play, a consulting service for accessible playgrounds in Pennsylvania.
After Kaplan’s son Samuel was diagnosed with microcephaly, she became a stay-at-home mom and volunteered with a group working on an indoor play space. Knowing that running the whole operation as a volunteer effort would fail, Kaplan acquired a grant and ran the Center for Creative Play for seven years until the 2008 recession.
That didn’t stop her from her work. She started accessibleplayground.net to index accessible playgrounds. She would visit playgrounds during her vacations, and use Google Maps and news articles online to add ones she hadn’t seen personally. She only included the best, most inclusive playgrounds at first until she realized the importance of even the tiniest amount of accessibility.
“When Samuel was little, if there was a park near me and all it had was swing seat, I wanted to know that,” Kaplan said.
According to Kaplan, the top five inclusive elements of a playground are fencing, surfacing, swings that everybody can play on, ground level play and water elements like splash pads. Fencing is crucial for children with spectrum disabilities like autism, who often run and could possibly endanger themselves.
“What I like telling people is that you can make every playground more inclusive, even a small pocket playground in the neighborhood,” Kaplan said. “If you think about it in the beginning, there are things to make it better. It’s so important to sit and stop at the beginning before cracking open the catalogs.”
She stressed that if inclusion and accessibility aren’t considered pre-development, they’re nearly impossible to make up later. And when playgrounds do become accessible, the press they receive is just as bewildering as inaccessible playgrounds.
“I see all these newspaper articles that say, ‘Great new playground opens! It’s ADA compliant! Isn’t that awesome?’ and part of me wants to write back and say ‘That’s great, did you follow all the other laws too?’” Kaplan said. “ADA is the law. Why are you touting that you followed the law? Tell me that you’ve gone beyond the law. Because the law really doesn’t get us to where we need to be. It gets us to the playground, it doesn’t really allow us to play on the playground.”
Her son turns 22 this year. Kaplan still visits playgrounds across the country, and is excited for her next trip. The destination? A magical place on the west coast.
Changing the Playing Ground
“Everybody feels welcome. That’s how playgrounds should be,” said Olenka Villarreal, founder of Magical Bridge, the nation’s most inclusive and innovative playground. The park, located in Palo Alto, California, features patent-pending slide landings, a laser harp, a tree house, swings and a play stage—accessible for every ability and age.
It started when Villarreal realized that out of 34 parks in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, there was nowhere she could take her daughter Ava to swing. She took matters into her own hands, using her 20 years of experience with startups and Silicon Valley businesses to create the perfect park. But big dreams come with big challenges.
“I assumed that it would be easy to raise money,” she said. “It was very interesting because many don’t understand what you’re trying to do.”
She also couldn’t find a single example of the playground she had in mind. Sure, there were already accessible playgrounds in existence, but she found the equipment clunky, boring and uninspiring.
While she didn’t know exactly how it would end up, she was certain of one thing: she would not tout it as an accessible playground.
As soon as a playground is labeled inclusive, it ironically becomes exclusive. According to Villarreal, inclusive playgrounds, simply by being named inclusive, unfortunately develop a stigma that only those who benefit from accessibility should play there. “No parent should go to one playground with one kid and another with another kid,” Villarreal said. “We went beyond ADA.”
Villarreal said it took a “tremendous amount of research” and work to finally achieve the innovation and aesthetic she wanted Magical Bridge to have, like importing equipment from Germany and including ‘Kindness Ambassadors’ that go around the park promoting friendship.
To those who wonder why she put so much effort into Magical Bridge, Villarreal points out that a child’s first classroom is the playground. It is where they first learn about the community around them and timeless lessons about interacting with others.
The Magical Bridge Foundation is trying to fill the vacuum left by playground manufacturers’ lack of inspiration and incentive, and the future may have Magical Bridge playgrounds in more schools and towns.
There are cost effective ways to make parks innovative and inclusive, even without the California budget, Villarreal said. Parks and Recreation departments shell out thousands for playgrounds that harbor more tumbleweeds than toddlers. With the right planning and materials, less could really mean more.
“I don’t think we have a thing specifically holding us back from making things accessible for everybody,” said Gregg Bach, public information officer for the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.
In terms of pricing, Bach said that the biggest challenge would have to be maintenance. The city of Phoenix alone has 180 parks, 29 pools and 31 recreation centers.
“When you roll all that ongoing maintenance, that’s what makes it a challenge for our staff,” Bach said.
While there are a variety of different projects going on, there are currently no plans for a big playground any time soon. However, he does encourage the public to voice their opinion during monthly meetings.
“Our staff does a really good job of following the next best thing and the latest trends, but if we hear from the community, that helps guide us as well,” he said.
A new all-inclusive layout is underway in Mesa’s Dobson Ranch Playground. Concept designs feature fencing, ramps, and wheelchair swings.
“This will be the only park in Mesa with this type of equipment,” said Lane Gram, recreation supervisor. The park will open November 2016.
The Beaubiens climbed back into the van. The rearview mirror framed the two boys, their feathery blonde hair matted with sweat and arms limp with fatigue. They will play another day.
Every child should be able to do so.
CORRECTION: The volunteers at Magical Bridge are called ‘Kindness Ambassadors’, not ‘Happiness Ambassadors’.
Photos by Aitana Yvette P. Mallari
Aitana Yvette P. Mallari
Aitana Yvette Mallari is an online journalist and a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. She lived in the Middle East, Asia and both coasts of the US. Aitana was a North America and Tech Correspondent for UK news site The Global Panorama. You can find her at Ability360, probably wearing a skeleton hand.