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A level playing field
Meant to be a source of fun, playgrounds can alienate children with disabilities. Matthew Hague reports on the innovations in accessible playground design that enable play for all
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, July 13, 2019 – Page P8

Until Hannah Houghton started Grade 3 in September, 2017, she had never romped on the playground of her school, McGirr Elementary in Nanaimo, B.C. In fact, she had never been on any of the 20-plus jungle gyms and adventure parks in her hometown.

Houghton had friends to pal around with and, similar to most kids her age, enjoyed being outside. What stopped her, however, was that none of the playgrounds in her vicinity were wheelchair accessible. As a baby, she was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy type 2. It left her without the ability to walk across the shifty gravel that separated her from her classmates.

"Starting in kindergarten, I used to see my daughter sitting on top of the hill overlooking the playground at school, with no one around except her adult supervisor," Hannah's mom, Mabel Houghton, says. "She would simply be watching her friends play. So I made a promise to her. I said: 'You are going to get on that playground.' " There's no reason Hannah shouldn't have been with her friends sooner, especially these days. According to Easter Seals, more than 5.3 million Canadians, almost 16 per cent of the population, have some form of disability. Among that number, almost 200,000 are school-aged children such as Hannah. Many more are parents. That's a large number of people who either can't take in the simple pleasure of a park, or supervise their own kids at a park, unless the space is properly designed to accommodate them. Which they should be.

These days, novel designs are making it much easier for people of all abilities to enjoy recreational spaces that until recently were restrictive. That often means wheelchair accessibility, but also goes well beyond it. New materials and thoughtful equipment are also removing barriers for those with vision impairments, hearing deficiencies, social anxieties, autism and sensory development delays.

The benefits of such innovations are potentially huge. According to a study by education journal Physical & Health Canada, children with disabilities are almost four times less likely to get exercise outside of school than other children. In addition, more than half of young ones with disabilities have few to no close friends. Both issues are in part owing to difficulties accessing the venues - parks, camps, gyms, schools - where socialization and physical activity often take place.

Imagine the isolation that's inevitable if all a child can do is watch their peers have fun.

Inclusive play spaces are an invitation to belong. Plus, even for the fully able, they add surprising, often beautiful new components to scamper over. Quite literally, everyone has more fun.

One of the biggest challenges for accessible play is the ground surface. Although some wheelchairs can manoeuvre over a bed of wood chips, which are American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, sand, gravel and other uneven, unstable materials tend to be hazardous. For the design of Mississauga's Jaycee Park, which was named by Today's Parent magazine as one of Canada's best accessible playgrounds, Torontobased Earthscape Playgrounds used a poured-in-place rubber surface. Not only is it more vibrant than little grey stones - at Jaycee, it's done in a swirling composition of green, blue and orange - it creates surreal, Dr. Seuss-like mounds and has a springy, plush quality that's a joy to bounce around on.

Toronto-based designer Adam Bienenstock, founder of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, doesn't specialize in wheelchair accessibility. He often employs large, reclaimed tree stumps - about 400 years old, many that fell over naturally, all still covered in their rough and weathered bark - that are meant to encourage kids to climb all over. "The average child these days spends 48 minutes per day outside versus 7.5 hours on screen," Bienenstock says. "I'm trying to provide playgrounds that give them experiences they aren't otherwise getting."

But subtly layered within most of the structures are elements that broaden inclusiveness. The textures of the designs - the gnarly bark versus smoother wood surfaces - help those with underdeveloped sensory systems better engage their sense of touch, depth perception and hand-eye co-ordination. One park, called Pasquinel's Landing Park in Denver, offsets a communal play area with a more secluded enclosure for quiet alone time - something that can be necessary for those with autism spectrum disorder.

"These environments not only help kids engage their environments," Bienenstock says, "they also help some kids relax."

Which isn't to suggest that a playground can't be both wheelchair accessible and sensitive to the many needs kids might have. Currently across Canada, a series of remarkably inclusive playgrounds are being built by Jumpstart, a charity run by Canadian Tire with the mandate to improve recreational opportunities for kids of all backgrounds. Their plan is to spend $50-million and install at least one universally enjoyable playground in every Canadian province and territory by 2022.

One of their most recent structures is in Toronto's $1.2-million Earl Bales Park. The structure, which opened in spring 2019, overflows with thoughtful details to ensure that no one is left out. Braille signage helps the visually impaired. Tall back rests and chest harnesses on the swings help those who lack upper-body strength feel comfortable. There's a more secluded area for kids who want alone time (replete with oversized xylophones where they can practise their music skills). And although there are plenty of ramps, the ramps are extra-wide and gently sloped, meaning people in wheelchairs can climb to the top, side-by-side, where platforms with special benches allow them to transfer themselves out of their chairs and onto slides (there are benches at the bottom of the slides as well to transfer safely off).

Even the slides themselves are thoughtful. "They are made of rollers," says Marco Di Buono, associate vice-president of programs and operations for Jumpstart. "It's a feature that most people wouldn't think of. But they are intentionally designed not to create static electricity, which would otherwise interfere with a child's hearing device."

According to Kelly Arbour, a kinesiology professor at the University of Toronto who is working with Jumpstart to study the success of the playgrounds so far and make recommendations for future improvements, such thoughtful details can be hugely impactful. "So far in our early findings, we've heard from families that say they no longer need to divide and conquer," she says. "They can finally take all their kids to one place, not separate their kids based on ability."

"This creates a value opportunity where siblings can have unstructured play together," adds Ron Buliung, a geography professor at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. "We often forget about the siblings who might want to play with their brother or sister on a playground, but can't."

Importantly, then, such playgrounds also have to be engaging for able-bodied children as well as a variety of ages. To wit, playground critic Dana Wheatley, along with her three young kids, rates adventure parks for her website, the Calgary Playground Review ( Recently, she took her family to Jumpstart's new Calgary outpost.

"It's fantastic on every level," she says. "None of my kids, who range in age from four to 10, wanted to leave."

Jumpstart is ultimately what helped Hannah Houghton get onto her playground at McGirr Elementary in Nanaimo, B.C. The school was one of the charity's first test locations; they got involved after Mabel sent an e-mail to Jumpstart vice-president Marco Di Buono, trying to find a way to pay for a more inclusive play structure and fulfill the promise that she made to her daughter.

McGirr now has a fully accessible playground, one with a colourful rubber surface, a quiet corner for kids who want alone time and accessible swings with heavy-duty harnesses.

In addition to Hannah, children come from all over Vancouver Island to enjoy the space. It's also become popular with parents who have accessibility requirements, allowing many of them to interact directly with their kids on a playground for the first time.

One of the most popular elements is an accessible merrygo-round, which is wide enough for a wheelchair to roll on.

Hannah particularly loves twirling around, and her mom loves watching her have fun. "Seeing Hannah on the merrygo-round, screaming with the other kids - it's amazing," Mabel says. "It's just so great to see her be a part of the group with all the other kids."

Associated Graphic

Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds uses the textures of natural materials, such as rough bark on trees, to help those with underdeveloped sensory systems engage with its play sets, top and above, while Jaycee Park in Mississauga, designed by Earthscape Playgrounds, employs a colourful rubber surface instead of gravel to make the grounds accessible to those who use mobility devices.


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