A Playground With a Difference: It's Designed for One and for All


January 2, 2000, Sunday; Connecticut Weekly Desk

FOR a while, when he was younger, his wheelchair did not stop Matthew Cavedon of Berlin from having fun at a playground. His mom, Susan Cavedon, would simply lift him out of it.

''I'd hold him on my lap on a swing, or to go down a slide, and he enjoyed it, because lots of moms do that with little kids,'' recalled Mrs. Cavedon, who works part-time as a nurse at New Britain General Hospital. ''But by the time you get to first or second grade, it's not really socially acceptable to play on mommy's lap.

''But lots of 7- or 8-year-old boys want to go out and play,'' she continued. ''And by then, his brother William had gotten older and we didn't want to deprive him. It became hard to find places where we could take both boys to play.''

That was about four years ago, just around the time a West Hartford mother named Amy Jaffe Barzach was beginning a project that would reinvent the idea of an accessible playground, and give kids like Matthew Cavedon, now 10, a place to play, with independence and dignity, next to their able-bodied peers.

Ms. Barzach's vision for a different kind of playground grew out of a personal loss. When her 9-month-old son, Jonathan, died in 1995 of spinal muscular atrophy -- a condition that, had he lived, would have confined him to a wheelchair -- she and her husband, Peter, decided to commemorate him.

They raised $300,000, mobilized 1,200 volunteers and in October 1996 cut the ribbon at Jonathan's Dream, a 25,000-square-foot, fully-accessible playground they built on the grounds of the Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.

Fully accessible or universal playgrounds are those that meet all federal standards for safety, but are designed so children with physical, sensory or developmental disabilities can use at least 70 percent of the play activities.

''The real magic is that the very things that are included for children with special needs are often the most popular with the typically able children, too,'' said Ms. Barzach, 38, the mother of three children 8 and under. ''A wider doorway doesn't make it any less fun for all kids to play in a playhouse, but it does make it possible for a child in a wheelchair to join in.''

According to 1995 data from the United States Census Bureau, one in every 10 children, about 5 million children in all, has some kind of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act does require a certain level of accessibility; specifically, playgrounds with more than 20 pieces of equipment must have ramps, while smaller ones need only transfer decks, which are platforms that children who use wheelchairs can pull themselves onto),

But Ms. Barzach felt instinctively that that wasn't enough.

''Kids don't want to have to drag themselves up to be able to play,'' she said. ''They don't want to look ridiculous, and different from other kids. And play should be for all kids. No one should be left out.''

Plus, said Matthew Cavedon, there's usually little to do once a child gets on that deck: ''A ramp does not cut it. A transfer station does not cut it. You can't have any fun.''

As soon as it opened, Jonathan's Dream was attracting children and families of all kinds, according to Ms. Barzach. But it was particularly popular among those with disabled kids.

''We found that families were driving six or eight hours to come play on this playground,'' she said. ''From my perspective, families who have kids with disabilities have enough challenges already. And to me, playing on a playground is such a natural part of childhood. It shouldn't have to be like you are taking a trip to Disney World.''

As word spread about Jonathan's Dream, Ms. Barzach began hearing from people all over the country who wanted to build similar playgrounds. By 1998, helped by a half-million-dollar grant from the Hasbro Children's Foundation, her grass-roots project had evolved into a national nonprofit organization called Boundless Playgrounds, of which she is executive director.

Based in Bloomfield, the group provides information, design services and fund-raising advice to individuals, schools, community groups and corporations that are building universal playgrounds. Fees for services are charged on a sliding scale, and usually equal 5 percent or more of the playground's total budget.

The price tag for a typical universal playground built at an elementary school would be $75,000 to $150,000; a larger one that could be used by toddlers as well as schoolchildren would run $150,000 or more, according to Jean Schappet, the director of design for Boundless Playgrounds. These costs are about 15 percent to 25 percent more than a standard playground.

So far, Boundless Playgrounds has helped build eight playgrounds in the United States. In the works are 44 more, including the two-acre Shane's Inspiration in Los Angeles, which will be the largest and, at $800,000, the most expensive.

In March, members of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons will spend a day during their annual convention helping to construct a universal playground at the Magnolia School in Orlando. And this summer, Every Kid's Park will open in Orangeville, Ontario, the first one outside the United States.

Here in Connecticut, Jonathan's Dream has already been joined by the Acorn Playground in Avon, with several more projects scheduled to open this year. Among them: Hannah's Dream in New Haven, and the first corporate universal playground, which is part of a Bright Horizons child-care center going up at the Bristol-Myers Squibb facility in Wallingford.

''What really intrigued us was that these playgrounds are not only for disabled children, but are playscapes where all kids can play to the best of their abilities,'' said Stacey Gibson, director of work-life diversity for Bristol-Myers Squibb.

''We have no idea how many disabled kids will use it, if any,'' Ms. Gibson said. ''But that didn't matter to us. The playground in and of itself is a fabulous playground for all children. Able-bodied kids do not lose anything at all because of the way the equipment or terrain is modified, in fact, they gain interesting equipment, and it gives them the chance to interact with kids that they would otherwise not have an opportunity to interact with.''

Universal playgrounds are usually larger than traditional playgrounds and they feature subtly different equipment. At Jonathan's Dream, for example, instead of a sandbox, there is a sand table that a child in a wheelchair can roll right up to. Instead of a toy car with one or two steering wheels, there's a team limousine with eight wheels, with room in the front for a driver in a wheelchair to lead the pack. And although there are several banks of traditional swings, there is also a wooden glider boat swing, large enough for two wheelchairs as well as six other people. The swing h has been christened The Dreamer by its youthful designer -- Matthew Cavedon.

''Everybody likes boats, and everybody likes swings, so I combined the two,'' he said, explaining how he came up with the idea for the equipment during one of the ''dreaming and design'' parties that Boundless Playgrounds organizes for its clients, as a way to have children help decide what will actually get built.

A similar swing is one of the most popular items at the HOPE Playground in Shelby, N.C., according to Rhonda Cooper, a bookkeeper for the Shelby school system who spearheaded the effort to build the playground there.

''My daughter just wheels herself up onto that swing and off she goes,'' said Ms. Cooper, explaining that Stacey, 14, had never been on a swing in her life until now. ''She can do it herself. That sense of accomplishment makes them feel so much better. And, for the first time in their lives, they are playing with their peers. When you're playing, you don't notice disabilities.''

Ms. Barzach said, ''Our classrooms are mainstreamed, and integrated, but our playgrounds are not. And playgrounds are where kids learn to navigate the world.''

She spoke of a time at Jonathan's Dream when she noticed a long line of children waiting to use a red plastic bucket swing, a perennially popular item that was included especially for special-needs children. None of the waiting children had disabilities, except for a girl at the end, who was in a wheelchair.

Thinking that didn't seem fair, since the other kids could readily use one of the many other available swings, Ms. Barzach prepared to intervene. But another mother stopped her, the mother of the child in the wheelchair. ''It's O.K.,'' Ms. Barzach recalled her saying. ''Waiting in line is normal, it's what all kids have to do. It's good for my daughter to learn that she has to wait her turn and it's also good for her to see that all these other kids want to use 'her' swing the most!''

Jean Schappet, Boundless Playgrounds' design director and a 20-year veteran of the playground industry, said the group's mission really hit home to her recently as she watched children play at the universal playground at the Space Coast Early Intervention Center in Melbourne, Fla.

''All you could hear was, 'Mom, Mom, look at me! Look what I can do!' It was just wonderful,'' Ms. Schappet said. ''That's what it's all about.''