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Fair play

A trip to the playground — hurtling down the rocket slide, soaring on the swing set, making yourself dizzy on the merry-go-round. For children in America, it’s a quintessential part of childhood, right? Right up there with refusing to eat your peas. The experience builds social bonds, encourages creativity and, of course, provides an exhilarating outlet for fun.

I’ll bet there is a good chance just reading those words conjured up one of your own playground memories — maybe a recent trip with your children or a recollection from your own childhood.

Some children, however, face challenges — through no fault of their own or of their parents — that make a traditionally designed playground something much less than a pursuit of unbridled enthusiasm. For example, children with disabilities or mobility impairments may be excluded because of accessibility or equipment issues. Or, perhaps, they have a parent or guardian who is confined to a wheelchair. These children not only lose the fun and social experiences that playgrounds bring, they miss the physical and mental health benefits that an active lifestyle provides.

The city of Bryant is hoping to remove those barriers, so that all of its citizens will be able to use the playground and take their children to the playground. In 2017, they plan to commence construction of a new universally designed, fully inclusive playground at Wilbur D. Mills Park — an 80-acre city park originally built in the early 1970s. The current equipment will be replaced with inclusive equipment that will allow all children to play and interact together (the current equipment, incidentally, will be repurposed in another park that doesn’t have a playground).

Renderings of new playground equipment at Mills Park

“Mills Park is a very important and historical park for Bryant,” Mayor Jill Dabbs said. “It’s filled with people every day and functions the way you want a park to function. So, it is already a healthy, active park … and it makes sense to invest in it and put this playground there.”

The project is far more than adding wheelchair access points to an existing playground. So, you may ask, how does a playground that is universally inclusive differ from a playground that is accessible? Well, Inspiring Play magazine describes it thusly: “An inclusive playground takes into account not just the physical equipment and tactics … it embraces the philosophy that children and adults of ALL abilities benefit immensely from being able to play and interact together. These types of playgrounds take into account children with physical disabilities as well as special needs or developmental disabilities.”

For example, the inclusive playground at Mills Park will be broken into three stations organized by age group. At each station, there will be playground equipment with ramps that allow access to everyone — including children, or their guardians, in wheelchairs.

“What that means is, (anyone) that is bound to a wheelchair will have the ability to enter and exit the playground equipment without ever having to leave that chair, unless they want to (to use the slide for example),” said Spencer McCorkel, assistant director of parks for the City of Bryant. “And that’s the point. This playground will accommodate any person from start to finish.”

Bryant’s commitment to providing a public space for all children to be active also coincides with the objectives of Healthy Active Arkansas (HAA). The statewide, 10-year framework – which Dabbs helped shape through her participation in planning summits put on by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute – launched in 2015 and was designed to improve nutrition, reduce obesity and other health issues, and broadly encourage and enable healthier lifestyles in Arkansas. Specifically, one of the nine priority areas that make up the HAA framework, Physical and Built Environment, urges stakeholders “to create livable places that improve mobility, availability and access within the community where they live, work and play.”

Casey Covington of Metroplan is the team lead for HAA’s Physical and Built Environment priority area. He recently praised Bryant’s commitment to this inclusive playground.

“We want to make sure that all our kids, including those with disabilities, have a place where they can be physically active while also reaping the social benefits that public spaces offer,” he said. “If someone is active at an early age, then their chances of maintaining an active lifestyle is significantly better.”

Parks Director Chris Treat said that depending on the amount of funding available at the start of the project, the city is hoping to complete the project in one phase by the end of 2017 — although he said they are prepared to phase it in over time, if necessary.

The city is still in the planning and fundraising stages for the new playground equipment, with part of the funding coming from reissued bonds. Of the $4 million designated to the Parks Department, $300,000 has been earmarked for the renovations at Mills Park. The total cost of the renovation is projected at $786,000, with the remainder to be raised through fundraising efforts with the assistance of the nonprofit Friends for Inclusive Parks (Everett Buick GMC in Bryant, for example, has already pledged $10,000). The city is also hopeful they will receive an additional $250,000 in grant funding.

The project has been in the works for approximately two years since the city was approached by community members such as Erin Gildner with Friends for Inclusive Parks. Dabbs says she is not aware of another park of this scale anywhere in the central Arkansas area, but that’s not what she will be most proud of when this project comes to fruition.

“The reason this opportunity is available is not because the local government said this is important, but because the people said it’s important, and that is when you get the best projects,” she said. “This particular project just encourages more activity in an already-active place, and it will be a park that people from all over the state will come and visit — a place that parents can seek out to have that normal playground experience, regardless of their child’s abilities.

“I think when people — no matter what their abilities are — are given the opportunity to become their best person, it benefits them and their communities long term in every way.”

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