Join the Fun to Make All-Abilities Playground Reality

The Missoulian, July 10, 2013
by Jenny Montgomery

Last fall, a groundbreaking meeting took place in a conference room at Missoula Parks and Recreation. Four children who use wheelchairs gathered at the table with Donna Gaukler, Parks and Recreation director, and Dave Shaw, Parks and Trails Design and Development manager. The kids described in great detail what kind of playground they wanted – and Parks and Recreation listened.Now, thanks to the immense generosity of the Missoula community, Phase I of this spectacular playground will be constructed next June in McCormick Park. A generous challenge grant from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation will match every dollar donated to the playground between now and December 31, doubling our community’s giving power.

More than $350,000 has been raised to date – enough to install rubberized surfacing, an innovative “play mountain” and adaptive play equipment. The project is still raising funds for a sensory nature retreat, stage, musical instruments and gardens. Any of these areas may be “adopted” by an individual or organization.

In-kind donations from our construction and landscaping industries will be vital: boulders, concrete, gravel, plants, fencing and excavation are all needed to bring the playground to life next spring. Our plans also call for an accessible “cabin in the woods” playhouse, which is still to be designed and built. Somehow, we will pull together to get it done. Missoula is that kind of place.

Based on the kids’ input last fall, Shaw of Parks and Recreation designed a playground like none other. At the center of this remarkable plan, a colorful, rubberized “play mountain” rises, resembling Mount Sentinel – complete with an “M.” This beautiful climbing feature offers “many ways to the top”: able-bodied kids can scale a steep rock-climbing wall while, adjacent to them, friends and siblings can power up the mountain in an electric wheelchair, or crawl up with the aid of ropes and climbing holds. A gathering space at the top affords a view from up high – something many kids with motor disabilities never experience in a playground.

Incorporating ideas from kids on the autism spectrum and youth with other disabilities, Shaw and his team envisioned a nature-themed playground designed to meet all children’s needs. At the borders, quiet spaces invite kids with sensory issues to retreat and enjoy tactile play and gardening. A circular stage ringed by boulder seating entices kids of all abilities to act, perform and play beautifully tuned chimes. Fun, fast play equipment provides body support and allows kids to roll-on or transfer from an assistive device. And rubberized surfacing allows kids on wheels to navigate freely, unimpeded by wood chips or sand.

It is hard to believe that not so long ago, children with disabilities were nearly invisible in our communities. They were often consigned to institutions, in part because public spaces were inaccessible. It seems unthinkable that as recently as 1990, a U.S. congressman declared the Americans with Disabilities Act “way beyond the bounds of reason.” That year, dozens of citizens – including 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan – would crawl out of their wheelchairs and up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in a dramatic demand for equality. “I’ll take all night if I have to!” said the second-grade girl. Her battle for a more accessible world was shortly won.

The ADA went on to transform our built environment as well as social attitudes toward disability and difference. I recently spoke to a group of fourth- and fifth-graders at Paxson Elementary, who generously donated $100 to the playground. Because they had friends and schoolmates with disabilities, the children grasped with excitement the importance of a playground where innovative design ensures all kids can play. Their instincts toward fairness and inclusion were right on target, thanks to lessons learned from their differently-abled peers.

Inclusion in schools is becoming the norm, but inclusion on playgrounds takes strong public-private partnerships, due to the high expense of accessible surfacing and other accommodations.

Missoula’s all-abilities playground will be the first large-scale effort of its kind in Montana and a historic step forward for disability equality in our state.

Just as important, it will be a place full of laughter, wonder, exhilaration and the simple joy of being asked, “Wanna play with me?”

Won’t you join the fun?

Reach Jenny Montgomery at jennymontgomery8@gmail.com or visit allabilitiesplayground.org to make a donation or volunteer. Jenny Montgomery chairs the All-Abilities Playground Project and, with her husband Ryan, owns Montgomery Distillery.