Child's Play

Communities get into the swing so everybody can play!

by Carol Sowell on April 1, 1999 - 2:24pm

In 1994, Amy and Peter Barzach took their 3-year-old son, Daniel, to a playground in their town of West Hartford, Conn. While watching him frolic with other kids, run and climb on the equipment, they noticed a little girl sitting at the edge of the playground, as far as she could get in her wheelchair. Amy Barzach recalls the child's trembling chin and quiet tears.

As Daniel played, the Barzachs held their younger son, Jonathan, in their arms. In a few months, Jonathan would die of the effects of infantile spinal muscular atrophy at the age of 9 months. In their grief, a counselor suggested they create a memorial to Jonathan, perhaps donating some equipment to a park in his name. The memory of the little girl at the playground came back to Amy.

All play elements, including the ship's helm, are accessible by ramp and have plenty of room for wheelchairs

And so they built Jonathan's Dream.

Around the same time, Casey Tridico of Grapevine, Texas, was having a playground experience similar to that of the girl in Connecticut. "All Casey wanted to do was play with the other kids," says her mother, Debra. "Any playground we went to would have a step or some kind of barrier that would not allow her to go the rest of the way."

Casey, who served as MDA's Texas Goodwill Ambassador, passed away at age 7 in 1995. Levenson & Hill, the advertising agency where her father Louis works, offered to create a memorial to her in Dove Park and asked the parents to think of something they'd like. Debra thought about playgrounds.

And so Casey's Clubhouse was born.

Today, both mothers look on the playgrounds they birthed with joy and gratification. They've inspired other parents of children with disabilities to take on playground projects. Jonathan's Dream has been featured in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, national magazines and on network television, and Casey's Clubhouse has been widely covered in Dallas-Fort Worth news media.

One of the first spinoffs of Jonathan's Dream was Everybod's Playground in Fairhaven, Mass. When Paula Barry's son Patrick began having trouble walking on the pea gravel-covered school playground because of his Duchenne muscular dystrophy, his teacher devised ways for him to have recess in the classroom or on the sidelines.

Barry appreciated the effort, but thought, "This doesn't seem right. He's in first grade and for the rest of his elementary school years we are going to have to do alternative recess? It shouldn't have to be that way."

Her friend Trina Bigham, whose son Brennan has cerebral palsy, had similar concerns. Together, they raised a few hundred dollars from bake sales and thought they might come up with enough money to buy a few accessible playground pieces. Then they saw an article about Jonathan's Dream and made the three-hour drive to check it out.

"We got there and Patrick was amazed," Barry recalls. "He said, 'I don't need you, Mom.' That's when you know you've done a successful job."

They set their sights a little higher, and ultimately raised $210,000. Everybody's Playground opened in August.

All three playground builders seem a little stunned by what they've accomplished, but they say that anyone with drive and energy can do it. Here are their answers to some of the questions you may have.

Won't all new playgrounds be accessible, now that we have the Americans With Disabilities Act?

The ADA Accessibility Guidelines dealing with newly constructed and altered play facilities primarily provide for smooth surface areas, ramps and transfer stations. This means a child can get to certain areas with a wheelchair, walker or crutches but then must be transferred to play on the swing or slide, Barzach said. When an adult has to get in the middle of the child's play, the child feels singled out. The guidelines also fail to address needs of children with sensory, learning or developmental disabilities, she says.

That degree of accessibility isn't good enough for Patrick Barry or other kids with neuromuscular disorders. Patrick's mother said that what he likes about Everybody's Playground is the freedom. "It's not so much that he plays with anything. He just likes the fact of being able to go wherever he wants to go."

What are the elements of an accessible playground?

Jean Schappet, design director for Boundless Playgrounds, which she founded with Amy Barzach, has been designing accessible playgrounds for 20 years. She says a playground should enhance each child's independence, creativity and inclusion.

"If a child chooses to play in a play environment and use their normal ambulatory device, whether that's walking sticks or wheelchair, those children should be given the opportunity to get to the same kind of play environment that typically abled people can reach," Schappet says.

"When a child with muscular dystrophy goes to a playground, though they may not be capable of independent mobility in the play space, they still want to play with their peers in a way that's cognitively stimulating. They may choose to forgo getting out of their wheelchair because they don't want other children to see that the best they can do is crawl.

"But they still want to do the things that their friends do, like go on a tree fort. The girls may want to be in a cozy little space with their friends and tell little secrets. Play is far more about imaginative interaction than it is exclusively the domain of physical body experience."

So, a successful accessible playground offers every child opportunities for sharing space, manipulating materials and using the imagination. That's ultimately more important than finding a way to transfer a child onto a swing or slide, Schappet and Barzach believe.

However, the kids do enjoy what Schappet calls the "sensory pleasures" of swings and slides. Some accessible playgrounds have sturdy, molded plastic swings that kids can be strapped into. Some even have swings that will accommodate children and their wheelchairs.

At the opening of Everybody's Playground, Barry recalls, "One woman had to pack her lunch because her daughter is 13 and had never been on a swing. And she spent the entire day on the swings and wasn't leaving."

Boundless Playgrounds emphasizes the importance of asking disabled children for their input in the playground design process. When Barzach did this, she found, "They didn't want any special breaks. They just wanted a chance to play side by side with their brothers and sisters and their friends."

Jonathan's Dream has a "boat swing," a large double swing that has space for several kids, including one in a wheelchair. It was designed by Matthew Cavedon, 9, a member of Boundless Playground's Junior Advisory Board.

Everybody's Playground features Fort Patrick and the S.S. Brennan, two-level areas that are fully accessible, with counter spaces and portholes, so kids can pretend they're cooking in the galley or defending their territory. Other playgrounds offer trains or tunnels that allow for the same accessible creative play.

Play stations have large-size tic-tac-toe boards, steering wheels, telephones and other hands-on activities easy for all kids to use.

Surface areas from the parking lot and throughout the play area should be the type that wheels or unsteady walkers can handle, as opposed to sand, gravel or steps.

At Casey's Clubhouse, rubberized decking lets the children get up close to two dolphins that spray water. "The kids in wheelchairs and the able-bodied kids can go right up to the dolphins and get soaking wet. That's where you find everyone in the summer," Tridico says.

Wheelchair-friendly surfacing also makes the play areas accessible to parents and grandparents who use wheelchairs, as well as to kids. Tridico recently saw two mothers in wheelchairs at Casey's Clubhouse. "And the moms were chasing their kids all over the park, all over the play structure."

Elevated sand tables, wheelchair-accessible picnic tables and children's theaters are other features in accessible playgrounds.

Can't you just buy some accessible stuff?

Several companies make and sell play equipment with ramps, but their products don't always encourage full inclusion. These companies are primarily adding ramps to traditional play pieces rather than reconceptualizing the whole playground for accessibility.

Schappet says, "In my opinion, all the major play equipment producers can build Boundless playgrounds. They just don't know how to yet. They just don't know how to put it together. So there's not a problem with the stuff, it's the understanding. In most cases, I'm not even talking about having them make structural changes to their products. It is the combination of the existing components that they have already produced."

Using a consultant or resource center like Boundless Playgrounds helps each community group figure out that combination. Some projects, like Jonathan's Dream, are site-built, with the planners designing and building their own equipment.

Barry worked with playground equipment companies but found "they had no idea what we were asking for. What it ended up being was, what play toys did we like the best, then Trina and I took it from there and we showed them how to make it accessible. So it wasn't that they came to us and were able to give it to us. They had no clue. They had never done anything like this before."

Tridico bought several pieces from a company that gave her a generous discount. With the help of the Grapevine Parks Department and a consulting architect, she put the pieces in a design that would be wheelchair accessible. She's encouraging the manufacturer to feature a story on Casey's Clubhouse in its magazine to show others it can be done.

How do you do it?

So how do you transform a playground from a dream to a reality? The project will take a core group of at least two dedicated leaders; cooperation of hundreds of people, organizations and businesses in the community; between $50,000 and $600,000 ($75,000-$125,000 is typical); and one or two years' time.

Barzach, Barry and Tridico all started with an idea inspired by their own kids. They then got other families, community groups and companies interested, and their projects ultimately became community showcases.

Barzach says, "Most successful projects are the ones where the families reach out and expand their circles to include more than just their closest friends." You might find teachers, physical therapists, local businesses, civic clubs or other individuals willing to be part of that circle.

This early group should begin thinking about playground design, location, getting cooperation from government entities and a fund-raising plan. The design should be based on what the community wants to accomplish, with particular attention to the input of children with disabilities and their families. You may also want to talk with people who have built accessible playgrounds in other areas or with experienced consultants.

The best location might be a donated land area, a school playground, a university campus or a city park. In some cases, accessible playgrounds are added to existing playground sites.

When you have a pretty good idea what kind of playground you want to build and where, you're ready to approach the relevant public entities such as the city or town government, the school district, or the city or state parks department.

Tridico worked with her town parks department from the beginning. "They just grabbed on to the idea, held our hands the whole way and made sure it happened," she said. "They were just unbelievably awesome. They helped us get discounts on things." The town also reaped valuable positive publicity from the project.

Barzach advises that groups call the parks department or school district and make it clear that they aren't demanding a facility or expecting the public entity to do all the work. She suggests saying, "We have a community of people who care about the children, all children, in particular children with special needs. And we would like to have a playground here in the community. We're not just asking you to do it. We are prepared to work to help it happen. We would appreciate a meeting and for you to participate in the planning of it with us."

One thing you'll need from the public entity is money. Barry and Bigham got a $50,000 grant from their small town, and the Grapevine Parks Department helped Tridico's team write a grant proposal that yielded $180,000 from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (they also raised $150,000 from other sources).

Your request for public funding will be much better received if you can back it up with your own fund-raising. Playgrounds are financed by everything from car washes and T-shirt sales, to special events such as auctions, to corporate gifts and foundation grants. A great deal of time and energy goes into writing letters, knocking on doors and using every contact you can find to ask for money.

Some park projects "sell" paver bricks or fence pickets, placing the donor's name on the item. When your design is fairly well solidified, you can ask companies or individuals to sponsor specific pieces — a swingset, a ramp, a playhouse, a fence, an awning.

Broad volunteer help is essential. Some 240 companies donated materials or services worth at least $1,000 each to Jonathan's Dream. You'll need volunteer skilled and unskilled labor of all types. Casey Tridico's Brownie troop bought a sidewalk brick and adopted the clubhouse as their special project to keep planted and clean. When the playground is done, usually the parks department or school district will actually be responsible for it, including liability insurance.

Accessible playgrounds become far more than play equipment and hard work to the parents who create them. Peter Barzach said that the building of the playground helped him deal with his grief, making it easier for him to talk about Jonathan and his death.

At Casey's Clubhouse, the dedication plaque reads: "... Although Casey never lived to see it, if you listen carefully, you might hear the delightful laughter of a little angel whose dream has come true."

Patrick Barry, 9, puts the kids' point of view in perspective. When his mother talks about finding a cure for his DMD, he thinks she's missing the point. "He said, 'Mom, for the first time in my life, I'm happy. Why did you bother building that playground if you don't want me to play on it?,' " she says. "And he's gone. He's out there with his friends."


ADA Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, responsible for developing accessibility guidelines for playgrounds
1331 F St. NW, #1000
Washington, DC 20004-1111
(800) 872-2253 or (800) 993-2853;

Paula & Timothy Barry
(508) 996-4361

Boundless Playgrounds
877-BOUNDLESS (toll free)

CAMDEN Foundation
(608) 876-6537

Louis & Debra Tridico
(817) 329-4555

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