By Renee McGivern
The City of Shakopee opened the inclusive Fun for All Playground in 2017, and it is providing new and delightful experiences for children and adults of all ability levels. Inclusive playgrounds comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they also go beyond ADA requirements. They are designed to accommodate an array of children and families, including those with physical, development, and social challenges.
“There’s been a growing awareness of the diverse needs of a broader range of the population,” says John McConkey, marketing insights manager with Landscape Structures in Delano. “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that one in 68 children have autism, and as many as one in 16 have some type of sensory, social, emotional, or developmental disorder.”
Kids with these disorders typically do not enjoy or use city playgrounds. A boy with autism, for instance, might run the other way if his mom brings him to a playground; the noise and physical interactions frighten him.
“A lot of these kids want to play, but they’re not sure how to engage, don’t know the right social cues, or don’t have communication skills,” says McConkey. “An inclusive playground typically spreads out the activities in different play zones that are scaled to accommodate fewer kids at a time.”
When it comes to inclusive playgrounds, one major difference that stands out is the smooth rubber surface of the ground instead of wood chips or sand. It makes it easy for everyone to get to the equipment or near the kids, like a grandparent using a walker or a veteran in a wheelchair.
The playgrounds allow children to discover a nook or structure that is just the “right fit.” Children with a sensory disorder, for example, might circle the perimeter of the playground until they spot a zone and other kids they can be comfortable with.
“Inclusive playgrounds are a highly visible way for cities to demonstrate their commitment to social equity and inclusion for everyone in the community,” says McConkey. “They become a valuable community asset in today’s competitive environment.”
City officials quickly see families emerge to use an inclusive playground, families they never knew were in the city and who rarely go to a traditional playground.
“Families with a child with a disability are the most socially connected group in a community,” McConkey says. “When they find something that works, they tell all their friends and become the most loyal residents a city can have.”
Inclusive playgrounds have been built in several Minnesota locations, including Bemidji, Cottage Grove, Lakeville, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, St. Paul, and Woodbury. Another one is going up soon in North Mankato.
The idea for an inclusive playground started when Shakopee resident Angela Tucker and another parent of a special needs child talked to City Councilmember Jay Whiting about building such a playground in their city. Whiting, a member of the local Lions Club, suggested they focus on Lions Park because he thought the Lions Club members would get involved.
Tucker has two sons, a 20-year-old with Angelman Syndrome and a 5-year-old. Characteristics of the syndrome include mobility and balance issues.
“Texture changes from concrete to grass or sand would be very hard for him to navigate,” she says. “He would fall, or we would sit on a park bench just watching other kids play.”
Whiting saw the immediate benefit to kids in Shakopee and told her to go for it. “I tried to give as much encouragement as I could,” he says. “To me, it was something that would enhance our parks, and I know we have a community that gets together and where everybody gets on board.”
He and the parents met with the Lions Club Park Committee and also brought the idea to city staff, who offered a great deal of support.
“This was an opportunity to take this big playground that we had and make it into something special with the help of community organizations,” says City Administrator Bill Reynolds. “We had accessible playgrounds, but we didn’t have any inclusive playgrounds, and this would serve a lot of people our parks hadn’t been serving.”
The city, parents of children with special needs, and the Lions Club forged an effective partnership, Tucker says.
Starting in March 2016, with City Council approval, a volunteer-led fundraising task force was formed. Coordinated by the city, the task force was made up of parents and passionate community members. The group approached every company in Shakopee and, within a few months, it raised $450,000. Contributions included $60,000 from the Lions Club and $150,000 from the city, which had already set aside funds for replacing the park’s aging equipment.
Other major donors included the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community/Mystic Lake Casino with $50,000; Canterbury Park with $20,000; Rahr Malting with $10,000; Lion’s Tap with $5,000; and a private family with $5,000.
“It truly was a community effort with the task force, Lions Club, City Council, and everyone who donated,’’ says Tucker. “I was so grateful to the entire community who pulled together to make this playground happen. There was a lot of love, passion, and hard work by many to make this playground happen in Shakopee.”
The Lions Club became very hands-on with the playground, as several members helped clear out old equipment and prepare the area for the new surface and equipment.
“When the inclusive park idea came up, it fit perfectly with our Lions Club mission to be involved in something that brings a lot of people together,” says John Schuele, a Shakopee Lions Club board member. “We donated about 125 hours in addition to the money.”
Schuele says it was clear that the city had a vision for the playground and that the staff were well prepared when they made a presentation about it to the Lions Club board. He also noted that a project like this can be run mostly by volunteers and need not require a lot of city staff time. In the process of fundraising, the task force, residents, and businesses learned that there’s more to inclusive playgrounds than offering everyone the chance to play. These playgrounds impact how everyone thinks about disabilities.
“Inclusive parks create an ethos where it becomes commonplace for kids of all abilities to play with each other and grow up as friends,” says McConkey of Landscape Structures. “The bias against those with special needs disappears.”
The park was completed by November 2016, when some families were able to test it out. It officially opened in the spring of 2017 when the other city parks opened. And on a rainy day in August, the city held an official donor appreciation event.
“Kids of all ages and ability levels moved around the playground, oblivious to the weather, squealing and trying out every piece of equipment,” says City Administrator Reynolds. “It was wonderful to see people of all abilities come together to have fun and be themselves.”
Schuele, of the Lions Club, says he was proud to bring his own kids to play there where they could see the impact of a club project.
“We don’t always get to show our family and kids what the Lions are working on,” says Schuele. “But when I took my kids there to play, they said, ‘That’s really cool, Dad, that you made something like this happen.’”
It’s wonderful, Schuele adds, to “see that people of any age, physical disability or ability level, and from any background can go out there and find something to do on that playground.”
According to parent Angela Tucker, the park is always busy now.
“You see the smiles on everyone’s faces and it’s wonderful to watch,” Tucker says. “It opens your eyes to all the different people who’ve been left out over the years who haven’t been able to play.”
She believes the playgrounds ought to be in many more cities, so families don’t have to drive miles and even hours to get to an inclusive park.
“That saying, ‘If you build it they will come,’ is really true with these parks,” says Tucker.
Renee McGivern is a freelance writer based in Woodbury, Minnesota.
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