A Playground To Smile About

All citizens want the community they live in to be responsive to their needs.

In Belton, Mo., the quick and positive reaction of the Parks and Recreation department to the pleas of a family show the tremendous effect a community can have on its citizens and its social capital.

In March 2010, Kelly Griffin, a mother of two daughters, wrote a heartfelt letter to Todd Spalding, Director of Parks and Recreation for Belton, to say that although they loved going to their local park, they were frustrated that their daughter was unable to play with her older sister.

Kelly explained that her daughter Paisley has a rare genetic syndrome that requires her to spend most of her time in a wheelchair. That left her sitting on the sidewalk, watching everyone else play, because she could not access the playgrounds in Belton’s parks.

Both Paisley and her older sister, Hayley, often ended visits to the park in tears because one couldn't play, the other played by herself, and both parents were torn and frustrated. Kelly went on to say that it didn’t seem fair that the parks were not set up for ALL kids to enjoy, and that children with special needs are entitled to play outdoors like every other kid.

The very next day, Kelly received a call from Spalding. He told Kelly, “I didn’t realize the magnitude of the challenges that members of the community with disabilities faced.”

He vowed to make it right. He asked if the family would come meet with his department and discuss the challenges the current play spaces presented to help him better understand how to improve them.

“When we showed up,” said Kelly, “his assistant, Vanda Meehan, already had pictures of swings and playground surfaces ready to present to us at the meeting. We were blown away by their rapid response.

“Shortly after the initial meeting, Mr. Spalding contacted us and said they were going to re-do a whole playground and make it completely accessible, and they wanted our family to give input on the designs.”

Belton Park and Recreation contacted PlayCore to learn more about the company's Seven Principles of Inclusive Design and to understand what products were available to help create the vision that the Griffin family dreamed of.

PlayCore, which created the design program in partnership with Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, saw the need to create a playground design program that addressed a multitude of abilities, taking inclusion beyond ADA access guidelines to provide best practice design principles that ensure that all people are included.

PlayCore’s Play and Park Structures brand provided the products to execute the design, and their local representative, Karen Herren with ABCreative, listened carefully to ensure that the play space met the needs of the Griffins and the community.

Spalding contacted the Griffins to let them know that they were going for a completely new play space in the community’s Memorial Park, and that they were going to put a measure on the ballot for the community to vote for the park improvements.

“The first time we saw the plans, I was overcome with emotion," Kelly Griffin said. "Just the thought of my daughter getting to play on a playground like that was so incredible! We were so impressed with the options that were offered.

"The plans included shade, and something for kids of all abilities, not just those in wheelchairs, but for kids with sensory, communicative, cognitive issues; we found all of that in their design plans.”

The Griffins began working hand in hand with the Belton parks department team to get the community on board, and the measure passed with overwhelmingly strong community support. It is worth noting that the measure included plans to revamp the entire park, not just the play space, because the community saw the value and the overwhelming community capital that the new space would add.

The ribbon cutting ceremony to open the new space was held on October 13, 2011, only 18 months after that first letter from Kelly Griffin, which is a testament to the power of the park department and the community to commit to and achieve a goal.

Kelly states, “There are no words to describe the moment we arrived at the playground for the first time and Paisley was able to enter the play area in her wheelchair. There were no tears of hurt and frustration this time, only tears of joy and thankfulness poured from our hearts. All that our little girl wanted to do was play! She was able to laugh and giggle and play WITH her sister!

“Our family absolutely loves the park now. Paisley’s favorite part is the slide; the smile that she has as she is going down is priceless!"

The Griffins have been approached by several families in surrounding communities, who share their excitement at being able to take their children with special needs to the park and experience the same playful joy and freedom.

They hope that by telling their story, other communities will see that there is no limit to what can be achieved by a park department and a community with vision, support, and dedication.

To receive a complimentary copy of The 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, send a request to info@playcore.com.