MADISON, Wis. — This fall, Madison's Elver Park will host everything from space-like pods to soaring bridges to whimsically nautical teeter-totters. And children of all abilities, and ages, will be welcome.
The sprawling structure will be the second of five "fully inclusive" playgrounds that the Madison Parks Division plans to construct in coming years. The Elver Park project, which soon begins installation, is set to be completed in October, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Intended to appeal to children of all abilities with equipment such as accessible merry-go-rounds, Elver's new playground is about 1 1/2 times as large as a traditional playground and comes at triple the cost.
As city parks departments around the country update public spaces to keep up with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, more are building playgrounds that reach the goal of true accessibility.
These playgrounds, known as "boundless" or "barrier-free" and in the most comprehensive cases, "fully inclusive," are designed to accommodate everyone and anyone — children, veterans, senior citizens — who face challenges that range from physical to cognitive to sensory. The playgrounds feature everything from tactile boards, to cozy hideaways for overwhelmed kids, to wheelchair-accessible spinners.
A 2014 list from National Public Radio found almost 3,000 playgrounds with varying degrees of inclusivity around the country. A different directory, created by inclusive-play consultant Mara Kaplan over the past seven years, identified 1,078 such facilities, with 24 in Wisconsin. Elver Park's renovation will bring that number to 25.
As the third fully inclusive playground in Madison — the first in the city, and in Wisconsin, was developed at Elvehjem Elementary 10 years ago — the Elver Park facility is a sign of an evolving local and national playscape.
"My gut tells me we're seeing an increase (in inclusive-play structures)," Kaplan said. "When one community gets one, then somebody nearby wants one. It just kind of builds on itself."
When inclusive playgrounds debuted almost 30 years ago, the ADA had just started garnering support for wheelchair-accessible structures. But any disabilities other than physical — cognitive, developmental, sensory — were overlooked.
That's when concerned parents started forming nonprofits to "build to the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law," said Tiffany Harris, CEO of inclusive-playground nonprofit Shane's Inspiration.
"In the beginning, we had to educate communities on these playgrounds," Harris said. "We always heard, 'Do we even need these playgrounds? We never see children with disabilities on playgrounds.' "
Slowly but surely awareness among the general population has improved, likely due to increased education on disabilities, Harris said.
In Madison, this grassroots support also shows through in school playground renovations. In most districts, school playgrounds lag behind public ones in accessibility since diverse budget demands stretch them thin, said John McConkey, director of market insights for playground manufacturer Landscapes Structures.
But thanks to community advocacy and fundraising, Madison schools have become breeding grounds for inclusive play.
After nonprofit LVM Dreams raised over $200,000 in 2008, Elvehjem Elementary on Madison's Far East Side installed the first fully inclusive playground in the state. In the past two years, more than a third of elementary schools in the Madison School District have paid for inclusive playground upgrades, said Chad Wiese, the school district's director of building services.
The community initiative touches public parks, too. At least 18 Madison parks already have small inclusive components like this, and five more have pieces in the works.
But out of the city's 241 parks, that's not enough, said Parks Division Superintendent Eric Knepp, who led an inclusive-playground initiative that started last year.
"If we are going to proudly wave the flag of having the most playgrounds per capita in the country, we need to address the fact that almost none of our playgrounds are fully inclusive," he said.
The nationwide push for inclusive playgrounds gained traction in Madison about six years ago when the city hired Jason Glozier as a disability rights and program services specialist. Glozier, who filled a position that was vacant for three years, was in contact with the Parks Division almost immediately.
One of the people Glozier was talking with was a young Eric Knepp, then a newly hired Parks employee.
By the time Knepp brought his inclusive-playground agenda with him to the superintendent's office in 2014, inclusive playgrounds were on every park department's mind, said Kate Kane, a landscape architect for the Madison Parks Division.
"It was a relatively straightforward sell — all the policymakers know we're the playground capital of the country," Knepp said. "I basically just had to tell people about (the initiative) and they were on board."
By 2015, Knepp was visiting inclusive playgrounds around the U.S. for inspiration, including in San Francisco, Boston and Salt Lake City.
A year later, the Parks Division and other city entities, including the City Council, redrew district lines for park impact fees, a type of one-time tax collected from new development projects to support parks in the affected district. The change secured funding citywide to ensure playgrounds could be built in all parts of the city.
In 2017 in Brittingham Park, the Division started constructing the first of what will be a series of five inclusive playgrounds in city parks. After Elver Park is finished, the third playground in the series may not be installed until 2020 due to delays in Elver's construction, but Parks Division officials said they are already looking for a location on the East Side. Reindahl Park is a candidate.
Already, Brittingham's playground is pleasantly grubby, Kane said, a sign that it's getting the usual amount of wear and tear that marks a truly loved playground.
Tijana Gruichich, an inclusion facilitator at nonprofit United Cerebral Palsy who works with teens with developmental disabilities, said she brings her clients to Brittingham weekly because the playground's accessible spinner and swings provide the teens with vital sensory stimulation.
Haleigh Carter, another weekly visitor, is an activities coordinator for retirement community Capitol Lakes. She said the park is uniquely accessible to intergenerational play.
The ramped structure and sensory play pieces give her residents who have dementia or use wheelchairs much-needed sensory stimulation, too, she said, and the bouncy rubber surfacing helps ensure they won't be seriously hurt if they fall.
"It's just a safe, quiet place," she said. "We absolutely love it."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Wisconsin State Journal.