Boundless Playgrounds

Sometimes heartache and inspiration walk hand in hand.

Several months after the heartbreaking death of their nine-month-old son Jonathan, Amy and Peter Barzach, at the suggestion of a grief counselor, sought a meaningful way to honor their son’s memory. They decided to create a playground where children and adults with and without disabilities could play and celebrate life together.

With the support of 1,200 volunteers, that memorial playground, Jonathan’s Dream, opened in 1996. Soon after, the Barzachs founded Boundless Playgrounds®, the nation’s first non-profit organization dedicated to helping communities create extraordinary inclusive playgrounds, and, today, more than 100 Boundless™ playgrounds exist in 21 states and Canada.

Here’s the story of a recent Boundless playground project.

Chicago Goes Boundless

Columbus Park is one of the Chicago Park District’s gems. Originally designed by renowned landscape architect Jen Jensen in 1912, the 135-acre park is meant to reflect what Jensen thought were the land’s roots--an ancient sea. Central to the design was a playground, one that was now in need of replacement after years of faithful service.

Intent on staying with the park’s history of creative design and forethought, park district decision-makers decided to go Boundless and called on a local philanthropic organization, the Parkways Foundation, to raise the $675,000 needed to cover the cost of the new playground.

“The Park District is grateful to Parkways Foundation for taking on the challenge of raising funds for this unique playground,” said Timothy J. Mitchell, the general superintendent of the Chicago Park District, when he announced the project.

The foundation worked diligently to raise the funds and in June 2005 presented the park district with a check for the entire amount and, according to Laura Barnett Sawchyn, President of Parkways Foundations, was happy to do it.

“We are excited to fund this valuable project,” said Sawchyn, “specifically because it provides children with special needs an environment without any obstacles, and it allows Chicago to continue to be a leader in public park projects.”

The city was a leader in quickly constructing them as well. Just over a year later, in August 2006, one of the newest Boundless playgrounds opened to the public.

Meeting the Boundless Mission--Universal Design

To be truly boundless, decision-makers knew the playground needed to be more than just wheelchair accessible. It needed to go beyond the far-reaching vision of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) Final Rule for Play Areas and, instead, address the widest possible range of barriers that limit the use of a play environment for people with disabilities. It needed to be universal.

A relatively new concept, Universal Design, is the very heart and soul of what it means to offer a truly boundless experience. It’s the difference between bringing a person to the slide and offering a person a sidewalk near the slide.

At Columbus Park, all of the equipment is specifically configured to allow for access and use by children and adults with a variety of special needs. The equipment is brightly colored to capture the interest of the children and organized to support the predictable ways children play.

As we know, play is how children develop their language skills, decision-making abilities, sensory skills, physical and cognitive strengths and their social interaction skills. By offering an attractive, fun play structure that appeals to children with and without disabilities, children and adults learn to interact, socialize and enjoy those who might look or act differently than themselves--barriers are broken, friendships are formed and we’re all a little better as a result.

Barrier-Free Playtime

When you arrive at Columbus Park, you immediately know you’re in for a unique experience. A large handicapped accessible parking lot and a separate drop-off area for vans and/or other special needs equipment both unload directly onto asphalt paths that completely surround the park and go into each of the different play areas.

To keep things interesting, the decision-makers at Columbus Park constructed the meandering pathways with a slightly rolling grade, which makes the ride or walk to the play areas seem like a gentle roller coaster. They also colored the path to make it visually different and added auditory stimulation--as children roll or walk over the path, it makes various sounds that delight and awe users.

But, of course, the stars of the show are the varied and unique play areas scattered throughout this wonderful playground.

Things To Gather

The pathway leading to this area offers accessibility to the very center of the activity space and allows children who might not get to touch much of nature to do just that--touch, feel and smell soil, rocks, sticks, plants and trees.

Swings Area

The swings area includes swings with high-backs for good support, armrests, straps for security and unitary rubber surfacing underneath so kids can soar! There are even hammock swings for those who cannot sit upright.

Tunnel And Touch

Unique and fun, the Tunnel and Touch area lends itself to exploring how it feels to lie down and sense the tunnel all around your body. You can touch it and experience what it feels like to be totally supported and to be able to wiggle around without worry of falling.

Gathering Spaces

These cozy spots are located at ground level or under a play structure surfaced with unitary rubber. These areas allow children to sit together and talk or use their imaginations to plan what they are going to do next--maybe turn all the equipment into jungles for exploration, spaceships or airplanes they can pilot.

Climbing And Sliding Loops

This area stirs children to action with the use of gentle-grade ramps leading to climbing and sliding equipment and also to transfer points at the tops of each slide for wheelchair-to-play access. This gives children of all abilities the opportunity to experience the play structure on his/her own and, in the process, gain strength, independence and confidence. For wheelchair users, this can be a real challenge, but one they can accomplish, “if there were only something to hang onto!”

Alternate Routes

To make playing tag possible for children who use wheelchairs, alternate routes were created with unusual-looking equipment that brings to mind an obstacle course. With its challenges, it offers opportunities for figuring out strategies for playing tag and also provides the safety of the unitary rubber surfacing, transfers, and gentle-grade ramps, if not at ground level.

Child-Sized Places

These places are small playhouse areas that are just the right size for children. It helps them with their spatial development and gives them a sense of the world at their own size instead of always having to acquiesce to the adult-sized world.

Open Lawn Free Play

As the name implies, this space is an area which is open to tumbling, cartwheels, rolling in the grass, tossing a ball, being barefooted, feeling the earth under feet—FREEDOM! It is a sensory delight of textures and smells, sights and sounds, giving a child or adult the feeling of being grounded and a sense of being connected with nature.


This is a special area stocked with colorful, elevated sand tables, water tables and activity panels for use by kids looking to explore with their hands and imaginations.

In the end, Columbus Park’s Boundless playground ensures that every child can reach the highest play deck so no one is left out of the fun of exploring and playing together. Everyone can play at his/her own highest level of ability.

Sheryl Billman is a freelance writer and soon-to-be regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business magazine. You can reach her via e-mail at

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If you would like to explore bringing a Boundless playground to your community, visit for a full listing of Boundless Playground locations, a virtual tour of a typical Boundless playground and step-by-step instructions on how to get started.