Boundless Playgrounds

Sometimes heartache and inspiration walk hand in hand.

Several months after the heartbreaking death of their nine-month-old son Jonathan, Amy and Peter Barzach, at the suggestion of a grief counselor, sought a meaningful way to honor their son’s memory. They decided to create a playground where children and adults with and without disabilities could play and celebrate life together.

With the support of 1,200 volunteers, that memorial playground, Jonathan’s Dream, opened in 1996. Soon after, the Barzachs founded Boundless Playgrounds®, the nation’s first non-profit organization dedicated to helping communities create extraordinary inclusive playgrounds, and, today, more than 100 Boundless™ playgrounds exist in 21 states and Canada.

Here’s the story of a recent Boundless playground project.

Chicago Goes Boundless

Columbus Park is one of the Chicago Park District’s gems. Originally designed by renowned landscape architect Jen Jensen in 1912, the 135-acre park is meant to reflect what Jensen thought were the land’s roots–an ancient sea. Central to the design was a playground, one that was now in need of replacement after years of faithful service.

Intent on staying with the park’s history of creative design and forethought, park district decision-makers decided to go Boundless and called on a local philanthropic organization, the Parkways Foundation, to raise the $675,000 needed to cover the cost of the new playground.

“The Park District is grateful to Parkways Foundation for taking on the challenge of raising funds for this unique playground,” said Timothy J. Mitchell, the general superintendent of the Chicago Park District, when he announced the project.

The foundation worked diligently to raise the funds and in June 2005 presented the park district with a check for the entire amount and, according to Laura Barnett Sawchyn, President of Parkways Foundations, was happy to do it.

“We are excited to fund this valuable project,” said Sawchyn, “specifically because it provides children with special needs an environment without any obstacles, and it allows Chicago to continue to be a leader in public park projects.”

The city was a leader in quickly constructing them as well. Just over a year later, in August 2006, one of the newest Boundless playgrounds opened to the public.

Meeting the Boundless Mission–Universal Design

To be truly boundless, decision-makers knew the playground needed to be more than just wheelchair accessible. It needed to go beyond the far-reaching vision of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) Final Rule for Play Areas and, instead, address the widest possible range of barriers that limit the use of a play environment for people with disabilities. It needed to be universal.

A relatively new concept, Universal Design, is the very heart and soul of what it means to offer a truly boundless experience. It’s the difference between bringing a person to the slide and offering a person a sidewalk near the slide.

At Columbus Park, all of the equipment is specifically configured to allow for access and use by children and adults with a variety of special needs. The equipment is brightly colored to capture the interest of the children and organized to support the predictable ways children play.

As we know, play is how children develop their language skills, decision-making abilities, sensory skills, physical and cognitive strengths and their social interaction skills. By offering an attractive, fun play structure that appeals to children with and without disabilities, children and adults learn to interact, socialize and enjoy those who might look or act differently than themselves–barriers are broken, friendships are formed and we’re all a little better as a result.

Barrier-Free Playtime

When you arrive at Columbus Park, you immediately know you’re in for a unique experience. A large handicapped accessible parking lot and a separate drop-off area for vans and/or other special needs equipment both unload directly onto asphalt paths that completely surround the park and go into each of the different play areas.

To keep things interesting, the decision-makers at Columbus Park constructed the meandering pathways with a slightly rolling grade, which makes the ride or walk to the play areas seem like a gentle roller coaster. They also colored the path to make it visually different and added auditory stimulation–as children roll or walk over the path, it makes various sounds that delight and awe users.

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