Parents push for inclusive playgrounds in the Twin Cities

Dissatisfied with community playgrounds, parents of special-needs kids are helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to create spaces where everyone can play.

Four-year-old Lucas Dean has to have three things when he goes to the playground: long pants, Mickey Mouse gardening gloves and lots of energy. He needs them to crawl through the rough wood chips to reach the slides, stairs and swings.

Lucas, who was born with spina bifida, moves swiftly in his purple wheelchair. But he can explore the playground near his St. Louis Park home only on his hands and knees.

“There are all kinds of things for kids in wheelchairs around here, but the playground isn’t one of them,” said Lucas’ dad, Jay Dean. “I want to get involved and change that.”

Admittedly, playgrounds have been adding accessible features for decades. But a lagging economy has put many local governments and park boards in survival mode. Special swings and adaptive rides are expensive, and ramps and smooth surfacing can add thousands of dollars to a budget.

Because of the costs, inclusive playground projects in the Twin Cities area often end up being a collaborative effort among families, communities, schools and cities.

“An inclusive playground is on our dream list, but it always comes down to money,” said Shannon Young, recreation supervisor for South St. Paul. “If there was a group of people who had the mind-set to push forward and fundraise for it, we would welcome that.”

Already, at least a dozen playgrounds with several inclusive features are in various stages of development (see sidebar on page E8).

Wood chips and rocks are being replaced by wheel-friendly rubber surfaces. Giant spinners offer balance stimulation and interactive play. There are quiet places where kids who are easily overstimulated can hide out, and roller slides and sensory gardens for kids with sensory disorders.

Sometimes it’s not a parent with a disabled child who’s drumming up support, but rather someone in the community, such as Peggy Halvorson, an Edina resident who believes inclusive playgrounds “are just the right thing to do.”

“I don’t have a child or grandchild with a disability,” said Halvorson, an activist who worked with People for Parks to build the first universally accessible playground in Minneapolis, set to open this month. ”It was an unmet need in our community. … I want my grandchildren to grow up learning to look at their peers’ abilities and not being fearful of someone who is different from them.”

Federal law requires that play areas be accessible. That means if a city builds or renovates a playground, it must meet certain standards under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

“The issue, though, has been that the guidelines really only address physical accessibility,” said John McConkey, markets insights manager for Delano-based Landscape Structures.

ADA guidelines for playgrounds don’t address a broader range of diagnoses and disabilities, such as autism and sensory processing disorders. To be truly inclusive, McConkey said, a playground needs to be fun, functional, stimulating and interactive for everyone — from children with disabilities to their siblings, parents and grandparents.

In the past five years, the playground equipment company has hosted focus groups with parents of special-needs children to find out what makes for a positive playground experience.

“We were shocked to learn that these parents didn’t take their kids to the playground at all,” McConkey said. “Playgrounds were not designed to support their kids’ needs. There was a huge gap in playground design.”

Suzanne Sullivan lives across the street from Wooddale Park in Edina, but doesn’t use the playground because she can’t wheel her 8-year-old son Dermot’s wheelchair through the wood chips. Although the playground is ADA-compliant, “it certainly isn’t inclusive,” she said. “I’m so sick of sitting on the bench watching my other kids play while Dermot just sits there with me.”

Sullivan found a playground with a wheelchair-friendly rubber surface at Alice Smith Elementary School in Hopkins this spring, and has been driving her three sons there to play. She also contacted the city of Edina to inquire about replacing the playground across the street from her home. The city encouraged her to raise money for such a project, so she created a fund through the Edina Community Foundation and is now in the early stages of fundraising.

After Dana and Dave Millington’s daughter Madison died of complications from spinal muscular atrophy, the Woodbury couple decided to start a foundation to raise money to help families in similar situations.

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  • Suzanne Sullivan pushed her 8-year-old son, Dermot, in a swing as her other sons, Ryan and Owen, played along at Alice Smith Elementary in Hopkins.

  • Lucas Dean, 4, spent an afternoon with his parents, Jay and Karen Dean, and his sister, Isla, playing in a neighborhood park. The St. Louis Park boy has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair to get around.

  • Suzanne Sullivan pushed her son Dermot across the walk way in his wheel chair.

  • Lucas Dean and his dad, Jay, at a neighborhood park.

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