The Sights and Sounds of Play

Play is a social catalyst as old as civilization--an activity that when harnessed properly incorporates all of society and builds a stronger culture.

In the past, park playgrounds have focused almost exclusively on children. Playground elements were typically single-activity structures designed for sliding, swinging and climbing. The problem is that this type of play appeals to a small number of users and a certain age group. Large segments of the population, which are either physically challenged or of an age that is not represented, do not go to traditional parks because there are few activities that are appropriate for them.

What many have now come to realize is that play encompasses all generations and abilities.

Several years ago, the park designers at Design Concepts began to address this issue and create a new type of playground--all-inclusive playgrounds for people of all ages, levels and abilities. As parks and recreation professionals, you know that playgrounds have not been traditionally thought of in this way. They are typically divided into three groups: tiny tots, 1- to 6-year-olds and 6-year-olds and up. It’s all very focused on children, with children playing and adults standing around watching them.

To incorporate everyone, three elements must be present:

1.    An easily accessible place to play

2.    A dignified form of play for every age

3.    An activity center that encourages types of play for all generations and abilities.

Gearing Up

Discovery Playground at Mirabeau Point Park in Spokane Valley, Wash., is one example of how these three elements can successfully come together. Spokane Valley is an independent urban outgrowth located just east of Spokane, and is the seventh largest city in the state. The city wanted a multi-sensory, accessible place with kinetically engaging elements where people of all ages and abilities--including those with acute or chronic injury, physical limitations or developmental disabilities--could play, learn, explore, and discover.

Admirably, the city went to great lengths to hear what its citizens wanted. Officials were careful to include input from the general public as well as from health professionals, city council and the arts council. At the end of the data gathering, it was decided that the playground theme would be “Exploring Eastern Washington.”

The theme included geology elements, fossils, flora and fauna and rolling hills typical of the region. Moreover, as a “discovery” playground, the features were designed to cater to every sense. Bright colors are everywhere. There are features designed for physical development, such as slides, swings and climbing rocks, as well as nontraditional playground activities for other sensory development, such as a fragrant herb garden and musical elements.

Using sight, sound, scent and touch, all of the playground elements are designed to provide activities that support physical, educational and social development. The learning is engaging and interesting.

The playground’s major features include:

•    The Black Bear Den Sand Play with Mammoth Fossil Find--Includes a bear den, mammoth and fossils, water spigot and raised sand table. Kids can visit a sculpture of a life-sized bear dozing in his den.

•    Fossil Maze--Incorporates an herb garden, fossils that everyone can dig for, benches and a raised planting bed.

•    The Sun Gateway and Basalt Boulder Play--Is a gathering plaza with climbing boulders and a bridge over a dry creek bed.

•    Secret Garden--Has a wavy walk, bridge, larger-than-life objects, vine tunnel and sensory plantings. Kids can sit in an over-sized pumpkin and chair.

•    Big Horn Sheep Challenge Steps, Double Slide and Sensory Garden--Features shallow and steep stone steps with wrap-around garden and sculpture, plus seating and talk tubes.

•    Palouse Prairie--Has rolling sod hills with prairie grasses native to Eastern Washington.

•    The Steelhead Trout River Bed--Features basalt water sprays, trout sculptures, seating and jumping water jets. Touch a brightly colored trout and trounce around on a splash pad.

•    Elk Valley Picnic Plaza--Provides shelter, tables, seating, boulders, sundial, fossils and Split Rock. Play checkers and chess at the picnic tables.

•    Eagle’s Nest Observation Deck--Includes a watershed and salmon wall, glacier rock slide, climbing wall, giant eagle's nest sitting circle, swings, spinners, fish climbing sculpture and boulder seating.

•    Discovery Pavers and Hidden Walk--Mark a pathway with benches.

•    Musical Elements--Pound on drums and play other musical instruments in several seating nooks within larger musical areas.

•    Outdoor Classroom--Is a quiet group-gathering area.

The playground area is approximately 1 acre. The landscaping provides plenty of shade for older people and those with minimal sun tolerance. Accessible restrooms are located throughout.

Designing For The Masses

The playground’s multi-sensory design means that the variety of play and educational elements in the park appeals to all senses. Schoolchildren learn about fossils, they become the gnomon on a sun clock, or gather at the outdoor classroom for a program with teachers or a naturalist. They can explore the pavers running through the planted walkway that show the life cycles of butterflies and frogs, amble through the sensory gardens, and uncover fossils buried in the sand. Artwork includes a sandblasted concrete retaining wall that graphically depicts the life cycle of salmon as they swim from the ocean to the mountains.

The playground is designed with remarkably little equipment. All of the pieces are intentionally multi-purpose, both educational and physically challenging. Moreover, the pieces challenge and benefit all populations, but in different ways. Custom pieces like the life-sized sculpture of the bear in a cave are fun for any child. For children with special needs, such as those with autism and who may want to be more embraced, there are areas to sit in the cave and still be part of the action.

The all-inclusive design of the playground means that nothing feels separate or special. While the park is designed for disabled children, and the playground is wheelchair-accessible, that is not the specific focus, nor is it obvious. In fact, one of the goals was not to have ramps everywhere. Understanding that the main focus of play at every age is social interaction, not particularly physical activity, it becomes easier to create a venue that allows that for all ages.

Since its May opening, the playground is already averaging several hundred users a day, far beyond what was projected.

Weaving all of these levels of education, imagination, socialization and physical activity together with challenged groups, adults, elderly and children has been a worthwhile and admirable venture.

Axel Bishop is a principal and founder of landscape architecture firm Design Concepts.  He can be reached at .

Carol Henry is a principal of Design Concepts specializing in the design of parks, recreation areas and school campuses.

The firm’s discipline is strictly landscape architecture and planning, with a focus on creating "people spaces."  For more information on Design Concepts, please visit