By ISABELLA DALLY-STEELE
Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — This fall, Madison’s Elver Park will have everything from space-like pods to soaring bridges to whimsically nautical teeter-totters. And children of all abilities, and ages, will be welcome.
These things will all be part of the second of five “fully inclusive” playgrounds that the Madison Parks Division plans to build in coming years. The Elver Park project, which is to get underway soon, is to be completed in October, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Intended to appeal to children of all abilities with equipment such as accessible merry-go-rounds, Elver’s new playground is about 1 1/2 times as large as a standard playground and comes at triple the cost.
As city parks departments around the country bring public spaces into compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, more are building playgrounds that reach the goal of truly being accessible to everyone.
These playgrounds, known as “boundless” or “barrier-free,” and in the farthest-reaching instances, “fully inclusive,” are designed to accommodate everyone and anyone — children, veterans, senior citizens — who have physical, cognitive or sensory impairments. The playgrounds have everything from tactile boards, to cozy hideaways for overwhelmed kids, to wheelchair-accessible spinners.
A list released in 2014 by National Public Radio found almost 3,000 playgrounds with varying degrees of accessibility around the country. A different directory, compiled by the inclusive-play consultant Mara Kaplan over the past seven years, identified 1,078 such parks, of which 24 are in Wisconsin. Elver Park’s renovation will bring that number to 25.
As the third fully-inclusive playground in Madison — the project at Elver Park is the latest product of a national trend.
“My gut tells me we’re seeing an increase (in inclusive-play structures),” Kaplan said. “When one community gets one, then somebody nearby wants one. It just kind of builds on itself.”
When inclusive playgrounds first came around almost 30 years ago, the ADA had just started garnering support for wheelchair-accessible structures. But any disabilities other than physical — cognitive, developmental, sensory — were overlooked.
That’s when concerned parents started forming nonprofit groups to “build to the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law,” said Tiffany Harris, CEO of the inclusive-playground nonprofit group Shane’s Inspiration.
“In the beginning, we had to educate communities on these playgrounds,” Harris said. “We always heard, ‘Do we even need these playgrounds? We never see children with disabilities on playgrounds.'”
Slowly but surely people have become more and more aware of the need to have accessible playgrounds, Harris said.
In Madison, this grassroots support can be seen in renovations of school playgrounds. In most districts, school playgrounds lag behind public ones because school budgets are often pulled in many different directions, said John McConkey, director of market insights for playground manufacturer Landscapes Structures.
Madison schools, though, have become breeding grounds for inclusive play.
After the nonprofit group LVM Dreams group raised more than $200,000 in 2008, Elvehjem Elementary on Madison’s Far East Side installed the first fully inclusive playground in the state. In the past two years, more than a third of elementary schools in the Madison School District have paid for inclusive playground work, said Chad Wiese, director of building services for the school district.
The work touches on public parks, too. At least 18 Madison parks already have small inclusive components, and five more have pieces in the works.
But with the city’s having 241 parks, that’s not enough, said Parks Division Superintendent Eric Knepp, who led an inclusive-playground project that started last year.
“If we are going to proudly wave the flag of having the most playgrounds per capita in the country, we need to address the fact that almost none of our playgrounds are fully inclusive,” he said.
The national push for inclusive playgrounds gained traction in Madison about six years ago when the city hired Jason Glozier as a disability-rights and program-services specialist. Glozier, who filled a position that was vacant for three years, was in contact with the Parks Division almost immediately.
One of the people Glozier was talking to was Eric Knepp, then a newly hired Parks employee.
By the time Knepp had brought his inclusive-playground policies with him to the superintendent’s office in 2014, inclusive playgrounds were on the minds of most parks officials, said Kate Kane, a landscape architect for the Madison Parks Division.
“It was a relatively straightforward sell — all the policymakers know we’re the playground capital of the country,” Knepp said. “I basically just had to tell people about (the initiative) and they were on board.”
By 2015, Knepp was seeking out inspiration by visiting inclusive playgrounds around the U.S., including in San Francisco, Boston and Salt Lake City.
A year later, the Parks Division and other city entities, including the City Council, redrew the district lines used for the collection of park-impact fees, a type of one-time tax collected from new development projects to support nearby parks. The change raised money to ensure playgrounds could be built in all parts of the city.
In 2017 in Brittingham Park, the division started building the first of what is to be a series of five inclusive playgrounds in city parks. But, because of delays in the construction of Elver’s, the third playground in the series may not be built until 2020. Even so, Parks Division officials said they are already looking for a site on the East Side. Reindahl Park is among the candidates.
Already, Brittingham’s playground is pleasantly grubby, Kane said, a sign that it’s getting the usual amount of wear and tear that marks a truly loved playground.
Tijana Gruichich, an inclusion facilitator at the nonprofit group United Cerebral Palsy who works with teens with developmental disabilities, said she brings her clients to Brittingham weekly because the playground’s spinner and swings provide the teens with sensory stimulation.
Haleigh Carter, another weekly visitor, is an activities coordinator at the retirement community Capitol Lakes. There, residents who have dementia or are in wheelchairs can use ramped structures and sensory-play pieces to gain much-needed sensory stimulation.
“It’s just a safe, quiet place,” she said. “We absolutely love it.”