Sensory Play

Jeff Burley, adaptive recreation manager for Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation, is charged with bringing sports and recreation opportunities to individuals with disabilities. So, in the fall of 2008, when he learned about a West Jordan Rotary Club project to build the county’s first Miracle League ballparks, he was enthused.

He worked closely with the club and the city of West Jordan to find a site for the ballpark, fund the project and oversee the installation and programming of the field.

However, it was not until installation of the park started in May 2009 that he stumbled upon another idea—one that would take the facility to another level.

Rethinking Inclusive Playgrounds

“I … made a call [to] Johnny Franklin, Miracle League’s development director, to discuss recommendations for companies that could supply benches for the dugouts. He mentioned Landscape Structures,” says Burley. “He told me about the work … [the two organizations] were doing to build inclusive playgrounds adjacent to their adaptive ball fields and, of course, I was intrigued.”

Well, more than intrigued. He wanted one.

The idea of inclusive playgrounds is not new. It dates back more than 20 years.

In the beginning, most inclusive play efforts focused on getting children with ambulatory disabilities to playground equipment. Park planners and designers at city parks created pathways and ramps to take children with mobility devices up to and around the play systems and freestanding play events so they could be part of the action rather than watch the fun from afar.

A major chasm had certainly been crossed, but this solution also exposed another problem—getting kids to play structures was one thing, but providing appropriate play elements that could be enjoyed by children of all abilities—together—was something else entirely.

As Steve King, cofounder of Landscape Structures and a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (FASLA) observed, play is more than just proximity.

“Once we found ways for children with disabilities to get to the play structures, our designers shifted our focus to providing developmentally appropriate play experiences that all children could enjoy together,” says King. “Over the last decade our new inclusive play products such as the SwayFun glider have given children with diverse abilities exciting things to do on the playground. They were welcomed as full participants in play. Our latest initiative in sensory play is an important extension of that concept, and it will also bring many new children to playgrounds at schools and city parks.”

Accessible, Developmentally Appropriate and Sensory

The facts are sobering.

Nearly a million children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorders—and this number has risen dramatically over the last decade. Add to this group the thousands of children with sensory deficits due to Downs Syndrome, developmental delays and other disabilities and the problem becomes clear there is a large population of children who could be better served by a different type of playground—one in which play events maximize the visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular and proprieoceptive stimuli that are most attractive to children.

“As children nearly everything we learn is based on sensory experiences—touching, hearing, seeing, tasting and moving,” says Heather Moseley, Landscape Structures Solutions Manager. “When our product designers observe kids on a playground, they see the exuberance with which children rely on sensory stimuli to play and socialize. But they also see a group of children who have largely been left out of the dialogue about inclusive playground design—children with autism and other sensory disorders. Because these children have difficulty processing and integrating the sensory stimuli, they also have difficulty socializing and making friendships on the playground. For many of them, the playground is enthralling, but also at times overwhelming. We believe that we can change this. By working with people like Burley, the Miracle League and numerous advisors in the fields of occupational therapy and special education, we have not only developed exciting sensory play products that appeal to all children, but we are also changing the way inclusive playgrounds are designed. We believe we have completed the spectrum of inclusive play.”

Landscape Structures believes they can design playgrounds to include specific sensory experiences that will appeal to all children and in the process give those children with sensory disorders a place to play with their peers—a place that will nurture their physical, emotional, cognitive and social development. All children playing together—the simple premise of inclusive play.

As the construction of the ballpark unfolded throughout the summer of 2009, Burley’s vision for a truly inclusive playground also began to take shape. It would possess Landscape Structures’ three hallmarks of A Higher Level of Inclusive Play—accessibility, developmentally appropriate and sensory. Moreover, the entire collection of play events would maximize the visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive stimuli that are most attractive to children. One major hurdle remained for this vision: how would it be funded?

Preparing The Funding Argument— What Inclusive Play Looks Like

“The West Jordan Rotary Club had done an incredible job raising funds for the ballpark over the last five years—nearly $500,000 dollars—but we knew that we could not rely on them to fund the playground, too,” says Burley. “We also knew that to get the support of the West Jordan Community Council and Salt Lake County, we would need to show them specifically what inclusive play really looked like. We would have to get them excited.”

So, Burley showed them color renderings of the playground which described each play element, including:

• A poured-in place safety surface to ease mobility and access

• A central play system featuring extra-wide ramps and decks

• Shade structures

• A glider that accommodates two wheelchairs and up to 10 children

• A climber that links to the deck with a sweeping overhead ladder

• An accessible pavilion featuring a collection of wheelchair-accessible play panels.

Plus, sensory play elements, including:

• Three types of spinning events

• Four types of swings

• Six visual, auditory and tactile activities

• A horizontal roller table for muscle stimulation

• A secluded dome that is both a refuge and a climber

• A multi-sensory discovery wall featuring a mosaic of colorful tiles, glass beads and stones.

Making The Argument

Armed with colorful drawings, Burley and Chris Sonntag of Sonntag Recreation presented their case. Burley knew that it would not be easy because several members had indicated to him that they had already invested enough money in making the existing city playgrounds ADA compliant.

“I began by explaining that our existing playgrounds, while ADA compliant, did not offer inclusion because they could not accommodate children who use power chairs or other mobility devices,” says Burley. “We also pointed out the safety surfacing, the ramps and all the wheelchair-accessible events, and they really started looking at each play event and asking questions. When Sonntag began to describe the benefits of the new sensory play events, they began to see what inclusive play is all about, and one of the council members said, “You know, this playground was never in our master plan because we did not even know that playgrounds like this existed—that there were play events that could meet the needs of all children, including those with autism.”

When Burley heard that, he knew that the group had made a connection. They also described how parents with disabilities could also take their children to the playground, put them on a swing and follow them around the playground. They would not be stuck on the edge of the playground watching their 2-year-old toddler fall down and be unable to get there. It really was an eye opener for them.

Who Do We Thank For This?

That night a tight vote of four to three in favor of funding the playground pushed the project forward. Six weeks later, the playground was installed and even Burley was overwhelmed with the response.

“We had a weekend of Miracle League baseball games in mid-October and dozens of families from all over Salt Lake City participated,” says Burley. “When they saw the playground they were blown away. It was huge for them. Several came up to me with tears in their eyes and said, ‘who do we thank for this?’ I said, ‘Thank the city of West Jordan, they made it happen’.”