Can you tell me a little bit about Unlimited Play and how it was founded?
Sure. My son was born with a severe disability that puts him in an electric wheelchair. My background is in recreation management and I have a strong belief in how valuable it is to get outside and play. With Zach’s disease, so much is taken from him – his ability to walk and talk and run and play. I couldn’t give any of those things back. But I knew the importance of just playing and all that you can learn, develop and grow by simply playing with kids. So, I decided I could give that back. I could give Zach the chance to play with other kids by simply developing a playground where he could play on, not just watch from the sidelines.
Do you consider yourself a playground designer, or do you use professional playground designers?
No, actually. We use playground vendors and they have the designers and all the expertise in putting the equipment together. We come with the expertise on how to make it inclusive. So we work with cities on exactly what they’re looking for in a playground — unique things, pieces they feel are really important for their area, and then work with the vendors to make sure it meets with all of Unlimited Play’s standards.
Besides your personal experience, do you have any training on what makes a playground accessible?
No— I mean yes, through college. I did all the ADA classes and things like that. I remember measuring hallways and doorways to meet ADA criteria. I graduated from college thinking I knew what inclusive meant until I had a child in a wheelchair. My son has to pull himself out of a wheelchair and crawl up stairs and crawl across a playground. So he can’t physically do that; a friend of his can and she’ll say, “Natalie, it is so embarrassing to crawl while my friends are running by.” She gets knocked over, she hates it.
So my book learning taught me something different than my real life experience taught me. And then within that, there is so much more than just building for a wheelchair. That I’ve learned as I have had an opportunity to speak all over. I’ve had parents tell me about their children that have different disabilities and why they can’t go to the playground. Or even veterans’ organizations, one gentleman stood up a few years ago and said, ‘Hey, we have more veterans returning home disabled than ever before and they can’t take their children to playgrounds. They need that time with their family and their kids.’ So there has been so much more. But a lot of it is truly learning from other people who are living this life and can teach me what needs to be done. We don’t get it all right. We are always open for discussion on how to do it better.
When you’re designing or coming up with a new playground, do you ever use citizen or children groups?
Yes, definitely. Usually we will start a project and we will work with the local city and their parks and recreation department. Then we’ll hold at least one design meeting where we typically invite elementary school kids in. We’ve had really fun design meetings where we pass out catalogs and they draw the picture of the playground and what they think would be fun, things like that. We also often put together a design team that is more adult-based and some specialists from the community.
How do you come up with a theme?
We leave it up to the community, honestly. A lot of times they will come in with what they want their theme to be. Sometimes they will put it out to their community and see. It is probably one of the most fun parts, to see what each city thinks.
Right away, the distinguishing factor is — are we going with an imaginative, fun, creative space or more of a historical, natural theme? From there we go in all kinds of different directions.
Perfect, you just touched on another question. While visiting the Unlimited Play website and looking at photos of some of the playgrounds, I noticed some seemed to match the history or geography of an area, does that often play a part in the design?
It sure does. In Herculaneum, we opened a volcano playground. They called me probably five or six years ago and said, we’d like to build a playground in memory of Pompeii. I kind of laughed and thought, why? I mean so many people died in Pompeii. Finally I was able to laugh a little and say, oh my gosh, are we putting skeletons in, like what happened, why are we doing this? It turns out Herculaneum is named after Herculaneum, Italy, which is right next to Pompeii. They wanted their heritage reflected in their playground, which was a volcano.
I’m going to open one later this summer in Independence and theirs will celebrate the three pioneer trails that began there. I even worked with their historical society to make sure it was historically correct.
How do you decide what type of elements to put in, what the children will enjoy?
Certainly from the playgrounds we’ve developed already, we know what the most popular features are within the playground. And, it needs to meet our accessibility criteria. Then outside of that, we are always mindful of the newest equipment coming out.
What exactly goes into choosing an accessible design element, what makes it accessible?
When I think of accessibility, I think the basics are: Can you get to a piece of equipment and then be able to interact with it? Is it a safe environment?
You know, families with autism, that is probably the number one call I got when I started, that their children don’t understand boundaries and run into the parking lots and the streets, and it’s dangerous. Those families called and said, you need to fence in your playgrounds to allow our families to come out and play. So accessibility, it is such a wide, broad definition. So that is safety, but accessible allows them to come and play. Also there is a difference — accessibility means you can get there, inclusive means I am playing with other kids while I am there. At least in my head, that is how I define it.
You’ll see at Zachary’s Playground there is a ramp to get all the way to the tallest structure and beside it there is monkey bars running on one side, so Zach can take his wheelchair and get up to the same place and talk to his friend that is playing on the monkey bars as they go side by side. So anything that facilitates that social interaction I think is more inclusive than just accessible, and is of key importance.
After all, that is the whole point of playgrounds, right?
It is, I wanted to give Zach the chance to play, but even more than that, I remember back to high school and middle school, kids with disabilities were pushed off to the side, and nobody wanted to get to know them. I didn’t want that for my son. I wanted kids to see past his wheelchair, that he is a kid that can play if he just had something creative. So the playground is almost the vehicle to create that learning, that understanding, the breaking down of those barriers which is so much more important than just the physical part of playing.
Okay, on to a less fun topic, but certainly important. How are these playgrounds funded?
We look for cities that already have something in their budget. We realize that most cities don’t have the money to make it truly inclusive, so something in their budget for parks and then we look for major donors and good volunteers in the community that want to help work on finding the funding — a real grass roots team effort in each community.
Anything new in St. Louis?
Cottleville will likely open this fall. Construction should begin sometime soon. In Wentzville, we are just starting design on that one. And, we are always in discussion with other cities.
Is there any way our readers can help?
We are always looking for good volunteers to be on our Superhero Dash 5K committee. We also have a gala we put on, we always need volunteers for that. Of course, we are always looking for donations and sponsors, stuff like that. Be mindful of us as your companies are looking for nonprofits to be involved with, and if nothing else, come visit our playgrounds!
Unlimited Play has helped to build 13 playgrounds and has eight more in the works. To learn more about Unlimited Play or find an Unlimited Play playground near you, visit their website at www.unlimitedplay.org.
Melissa Nordmann resides in St. Charles County. When she's not planning events for her local residents, she enjoys attending her sons' baseball games and hiking with her family in many of the area's fabulous parks.