A playground for all abilities

Stewart Park’s new playground to provide more accessibility

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Stewart Park’s new school-aged playground, set to be complete by the end of this year, is designed with many abilities in mind.

The new play space, part of Phase 2 of a three-phase renovation project, will include many new features that are designed to make the playground accessible while providing a fun, engaging experience for people of any level of ability.

The Ithaca park has been getting quite the makeover lately, and Phase 1 completed mid-September with the Community Build of the pre-school playground. The next step is a much larger undertaking, but it’s all part of Stewart Park’s eventual goal of being a park anyone can enjoy, regardless of ability level.

Steve Lauzun, co-owner of Parkitects, designed the school-age playground equipment for the project. He said the accessible playground is far from a new concept.

“It’s been evolving for a long time,” he said. “I think we’ve been working this idea for eight years.”

Rick Manning, executive director of the Friends of Stewart Park nonprofit, said making an accessible playground was almost immediately part of the conversation when it became apparent that the old equipment at the park needed some updating.

“The idea of making it inclusive … that just seemed like the thing to do,” Manning said.

The features on the new playground go beyond just wider ramps for wheelchairs; the playground will include a variety of areas designed for different abilities. A berm – a large, elevated area of natural ground – will have a gentle ramp to the top, allowing any child to be at the highest point in the playground.

“Kids in wheelchairs, oftentimes, they just see the world at this bellybutton height and it’s really fun if they can get higher, so we wanted the play structure to do that,” Manning said.

Other features include a variety of slides at different heights, materials and widths and activities that are placed at different height levels.

“There’s just a little bit of everything out there,” Lauzun said. “It just comes down to a wide variety of things that slide, spin, rock, bounce, climb, crawl, twist, turn, just trying to create all of those things in a variety of reaches and a variety of places so that every child at any age and any level of ability finds something that works.”

Racker, an agency that serves individuals across the lifespan who have developmental and physical disabilities, was instrumental in the eventual design of the playground, Manning said, helping to make sure the entire playground met a baseline of accessibility. From there, it was all about having the right balance.

“Playgrounds are about accessibility, but they’re also about challenge,” Lauzun said. “In any playground, you want things to be a challenge for kids so that they have new things to learn. … Not every child should be able to do everything right away.”

Lauzun said playgrounds are meant to stimulate children, and it’s natural for them to learn and grow through years of playing there. He and others wanted all children to be able to see that benefit from Stewart Park.

“[We] try to provide enough variety in there so that every child, on any day, no matter what their level of ability, can find something in there that works,” Lauzun said. “They’re also going to find a few things that don’t work for them given their level of ability, but then hopefully, there’s enough there that does work for them and there’s enough there that they could do.”

Lauzun and Manning said the playground was designed based on input from Racker and community members connected to the issue of accessibility and beyond. Two such people are husband and wife Patrick and Ashley Bohn.

Patrick and Ashley are on the planning committee for the playground project but also have a personal connection to the issue of accessibility. Patrick is a wheelchair user, and the two have a 3-year-old daughter who has frequently visited Stewart Park.

Patrick said that, when they were talking to those involved about what features need to be part of the playground, they shared Lauzun’s viewpoint of making something for everyone.

“An accessible playground isn’t about having every part of the playground be usable for every single person with all the different kinds of ability levels they might have,” Patrick said. “It’s making sure that everybody with different ability levels has at least something they can do.”

Ashley said there are many aspects of the park that contribute to accessibility that visitors may not realize. For example, the bright, contrasting colors on the equipment are helpful for those with visual disabilities to have proper depth perception and for those with sensory disabilities.

Some of the slides have wheelchair transfer spots at the top, designed so children with trunk control can get off their wheelchair and onto the slide safely. There are also areas on the playground that are secluded to serve as an area for children with sensory disabilities and anyone else who needs an isolated spot to take a break.

Even the metal slide has a specific purpose – it presents less static electricity than a plastic slide, making it far more accessible to children with cochlear implants and hearing impairments.

The park’s three-part renovation is a $1.7 million project. $1 million came from the state and the rest from fundraising. Many area businesses and organizations have done their part to make this project possible, including Ithaca Fire and Rescue, Wegman’s, Racker and many more. Those involved said it’s worth it to provide a free, accessible space for all families.

The school-age playground is step two of three planned for the park. Phase 3 of the renovation project, for which Manning and others are still doing fundraising, will include an accessible splash pad and new bathrooms and changing rooms. Manning said he hopes the success of Phase 2 will garner more support and funds for Phase 3.

Lauzun said he looks forward to the completion of the playground and the opportunity to see it full of fun.

“I want to stand on the top of that berm and look at the structure covered with kids,” Lauzun said. “I just can’t wait for that.”

Ashley and Patrick shared a similar opinion, while adding that the playground has the potential to bring children and families with a variety of abilities together to share in community. Ashley said the playground has the added benefit of making Ithaca a more desirable place to visit and vacation.

“For the community, we’re enhancing our population and the landscape of the people who visit here because we’re welcoming more and more types of people and telling them that we are a truly inclusive community,” she said.

Manning said that the future of the playground will depend on feedback from the community once it is complete. The project design may change or be added to in order to suit the needs of those who value it most.

“In time, when we feel like we have served everyone, maybe we come back with some features where maybe they’re a little more aggressive, but at this point, we’re really trying to be equitable,” Manning said.

Ultimately, those interviewed agreed, building a new, accessible playground is all to give every child something fun and engaging to do.

“This is not a playground for children with disabilities; it’s a playground where children with disabilities can play,” Ashley said. “It’s for everyone.”

For more information, visit friendsofstewartpark.org.

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