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A Playground for All Abilities

by Clare Coppa

Most playgrounds aren’t suitable for disabled children. Jungle gyms lack ramps for wheelchairs to reach the center of play. Soft surfaces of sand or wood chips prevent wheelchair-bound children from independently moving and socializing.

Universal playgrounds, however, have gadgets and whirly-gigs that would have delighted Dr. Seuss. They have crazy slides, colorful access paths, and play walls with noisy thing-a-ma-gigs to stimulate the physically-challenged.

Playground-equipment designer Jean Schappet says she uses ASTM standards to bring universal play to “children of all abilities,” such as ASTM standards for public-use play areas, surfacing, and soft-contained materials. “What we are specifically focusing on is removing all the barriers, both sociological and architectural that impede children from playing,” she says. “Children like to discover things and make judgments on their own. In a universal playground, other children can discover me on my level, and see what likenesses we have.”

Since 1985, Schappet has developed standards with ASTM Committee F15 on Consumer Products. For safe but passable playground surfaces, she designs with F 1292, Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment. For guidance on equipment performance and safety, she consults F 1487, Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use. “Jean is extremely aggressive, effective, and very productive when it comes to children’s safety, and yet she is a most delightful person to work with,” comments John Blair, the chairman of ASTM Committee F15.

Schappet and Amy Jaffe Barzack founded the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, Bloomfield, Conn., to allow all children to brush elbows with their peers. “Children who have
either sensory disabilities or sensory-integration issues, or children who are cognitively delayed need huge amounts of sensory input,” says Schappet, who has five unimpaired children. “By getting this additional sensory input, it gives them the neurological experience to process the vestibular input.”

Barzack, whose son Jonathan died of spinal muscular atrophy in 1995 and Schappet, who previously manufactured playgrounds for disabled children, cut the ribbon for their new company in 1998 with help from private supporters and the Hasbro Children’s Foundation. In Boundless Playgrounds, access paths yield sliding boards with grip bars and wheel-chair-level seats, allowing children to transfer themselves and swoop down to their guardians. Talk tubes and play walls encourage important social interaction. “Children need lots and lots of input because that neurological input needs to be processed,” she continues. “Then children gather and sort that input and begin to classify the input that they’re getting. So it becomes very critical that those synaptical pathways are established early in childhood.”

Copyright 2003, ASTM