Last week, my mother and I took my kids to our first Boundless playground, a playground intentionally designed to include children with a variety of strengths and abilities. I noticed the swings first—a few that looked the same as every other playground, and two with full back support and harnesses, big enough to hold an elementary-school aged child. Our daughter Penny, age four, has Down syndrome, and I remember the days when she could only spend 60 seconds in a swing before needing to get down. That low muscle tone made it hard to hold her head up, so the enjoyment of swinging was limited by the design of the swing. At this playground, those bright yellow swings stood out as an invitation for any child to swing with abandon.
And then I noticed that the path up to the slide was quite wide. Wide enough, in fact, for a wheelchair. Along the way up, we discovered “stations”—Braille on one plastic board, a xylophone elsewhere, knobs and different textures lining the walls. Penny and William, our 18-month old son, didn’t seem to notice anything different. They just thought it was fun to slide and swing and seesaw, play peekaboo, run and climb and spin.
A few years ago, it took courage for me to take Penny to a playground. I wondered what questions I might get, particularly, “How old is she?” and then a surprised look when I said “Two,” and they watched her take those tentative early steps, watched her tiny body navigate whatever treacherous structure loomed ahead. I worried about older children knocking her down. I wasn’t even sure she would have fun, since she couldn’t run and jump and climb like other kids her age.
Now, Penny can run and jump and climb. There are still things she can’t do, but she’s old enough now that most playgrounds are pretty fun spots. And if I’m honest about it, even in this inclusive setting, a child in a wheelchair would run into some barriers fairly quickly. She could wheel herself to the xylophone, but she couldn’t get all the way to the highest slide without assistance. She couldn’t get up and ride on the bouncy horse or sit on the giant seesaw by herself. Even a “boundless” playground can’t remove all physical limitations.
So for a moment, the cynic in me kicked in. What’s the point of this place? Penny can have fun on most any playground these days. And it would still be tough for some kids to navigate this one. But the purpose of this space goes beyond physical barriers. It tackles social ones, which is more than half the battle. Because what this playground said to me was, You are welcome here. And so is your daughter, who has glasses and a physical therapist and an individualized education plan. Your daughter, who has by now introduced herself to everyone else on the playground with, “Hi, what’s your name? Want to play?”
Architecture sends a message. In this case, thankfully, the message was: Come on in. Play with us. Stay for a while.