April 3, 2011 in City

Parks giving kids of every ability level a chance to play

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Kathy Plonka photoBuy this photo

Cierra Hiebert, 8, jumps on the trampoline Wednesday on a visit to Inland Empire Gymnastics with Specialized Needs Recreation’s Camp All-Stars day camp.
(Full-size photo)

The Discovery Playground in Spokane Valley offers something for children of all abilities.

The paths – made of grass, concrete or wood chips – all are accessible for wheelchairs. There are swings and slides and climbing rocks, but also hanging chimes, fragrant plants and textured walls to provide sensory stimulation for children who have brain disorders or who are physically limited.

“This is the city’s first attempt to do something like this,” said Mike Stone, Spokane Valley’s parks director, of the attempt to make the park fully accessible. “It’s becoming a critical element in the parks and recreation field, this integration.”

Creating play structures that can be used by children of all abilities seems to be catching on lately throughout the Inland Northwest.

When Denise Wetzel, a Coeur d’Alene mother of two autistic sons, heard about Discovery Playground, she lobbied Coeur d’Alene parks officials for something similar. Subsequently, the play structure planned for a remake of McEuen Field in downtown Coeur d’Alene has been designed to be fully accessible to children of all abilities and to include sensory activities. Surveys show the play structure is the most popular feature in a proposed redesign of the park.

Last year, the first fully accessible playground structures in Spokane and Sandpoint parks were added, at Mission and Travers parks, respectively. And a North Idaho AmeriCorps group is raising money to add accessible equipment at a Post Falls park.

Though some Inland Northwest city parks already have some piecemeal accessible features, such as swings or wheelchair-height sandboxes, parks officials say the full-blown playgrounds are among the first to be fully accessible. At Mission Park, the structure was attached to existing traditional equipment so children of different ability levels can play side by side, said Taylor Bressler, who’s in charge of planning and development for Spokane Parks.

“Everybody learns a little understanding,” Bressler said. “Everyone loves it.”

Among the features of the new playground structures are wider paths for wheelchairs to pass each other, additional space for children to transfer from a wheelchair to a slide, and swings that have more safety features to accommodate children of limited physical ability.

Discovery Playground has been so popular since it opened in May that it had to close early for equipment repairs. The park has attracted so many people – between 200 and 400 per day – that some complaints have been lodged about crowds.

Speaking up for inclusion

Disability rights advocates say the momentum with the playgrounds could be resulting from the fact that more people today, like Wetzel in Coeur d’Alene, are speaking up and reminding city planners not to forget about people of different abilities. That applies to designing sidewalks, emergency preparedness and other public services, said Linda McClain, executive director of the Coalition of Responsible Disabled (CORD) in Spokane. McClain said agencies like hers also are becoming more involved in city planning processes.

“It’s a sound and wise investment to invest in access for all,” said McClain, who was en route to Olympia to lobby for her cause with others on her staff. “Who wants a child to be isolated by the rest of society? Nobody. It just makes sense.”

Inland Northwest communities have for years offered popular programs that serve children with disabilities. Spokane’s Therapeutic Recreation Services, for example, has offered day camps, monthly dances, tennis, swimming and aerobics for children with developmental and physical disabilities, said Alice Busch, the recreation supervisor.

Busch said opportunities for outdoor fun have increased recently, especially with the addition of the splash pads at the city’s parks and “zero-depth entry” zones at the new outdoor aquatic centers. Both features allow children of any ability to get into the water, not hindered by steps or ladders, she said.

‘His entire social world’

The Specialized Needs Recreation program in Coeur d’Alene offers year-round entertainment and social opportunities for children with disabilities. In 2009, SNR was named the best therapeutic recreation program in the nation by the National Park and Recreation Association, said Angie Goucher, the program’s director.

The Coeur d’Alene and Spokane programs offer weekly, monthly and annual events that are attended by hundreds of people. Last week in Coeur d’Alene, SNR welcomed children to Camp All-Stars, a spring-break camp that included activities such as gymnastics and a fire station tour.

“I’ve been absolutely amazed at how much is available here,” said Wendy Carroll, a Coeur d’Alene woman whose son, Toby, 21, has been participating in Specialized Needs Recreation since he was 15. Toby Carroll, who is developmentally disabled and has mild cerebral palsy and epilepsy, attends up to four social events in a week.

“That is his entire social world, pretty much. Without them, he would be stuck at home, socially isolated,” Wendy Carroll said. “It just means the world to us to have the services that are provided there.”

Kroc Center to receive award

On Monday, Coeur d’Alene’s Kroc Center will receive the Inclusive Community Program/Facility award from the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities, thanks to a nomination by Wetzel. The center opened two years ago.

As parents of children with disabilities, Wetzel said, “You get used to being told, ‘No, no, your child’s not allowed.’ ” At the Kroc Center, however, “They really want to work with you and make it so everyone is welcome to come in.”

Despite the progress, disability advocates say there’s always room for improvement.

“I would love to see play parks that have things that can be for kids who learn differently, who play differently, who have mental health issues,” said Patrick Blum of the Disability Action Center in Coeur d’Alene. “This is not a critique of North Idaho so much as it is our whole nation. There is no place that is awesome when it comes to recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.

“There needs to be an awareness that for all the things we do … that we in the disability community shouldn’t be thought of as an afterthought.”


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