Every kid can get in on the fun at all-abilities playgrounds

December 1, 2020

Catholic health facilities help bring innovative play spaces to their communities


Until recently, Keesha and Rich Sonnemaker had a dilemma whenever they wanted to take their four children to the park. The playgrounds that their 11-year-old and 8-year-old sons loved to visit mainly had equipment for older children. And none of that equipment was accessible to the Sonnemakers' 5-year-old son, who uses a wheelchair because of a degenerative muscular disease, nor safe for their 4-year-old daughter, who has poor muscle tone and struggles to maintain her balance because of the same medical condition.

During a frigid Oct. 23 ribbon-cutting celebration for this all-abilities playground in Spokane, Washington, the Sonnemaker family had a great time trying out the We-Go-Round and other accessible equipment. Providence Health Care funded the playground through a community benefit grant. From left are siblings Oliver, Emmett and Dallin.

"We'd have to split up — with one of us taking the older kids to the parks they like and the other taking the younger kids to a park for small children, where we can lift Emmett up onto the equipment," and where there is safer terrain for Eleanor, says Keesha Sonnemaker, of Spokane, Washington.

Their dilemma was solved Oct. 23 when — as snow fell and the temperature hovered at 30 degrees — Providence Health Care and the city of Spokane opened the Providence Playscape all-abilities playground. The Sonnemakers were honorary ribbon-cutters, and Keesha Sonnemaker says all four of her children had a blast trying out the play equipment. She says despite the cold temperatures that have lingered since opening day, all four children have been clamoring to return to the playground, designed to be accessible to all children.

The Sonnemakers' enthusiasm is music to the ears of John Kleiderer, chief mission integration officer for Providence's Washington and Montana Region. "Having a place like this means the world for families" whose children with differing abilities once had to watch from the sidelines as their siblings and peers played on inaccessible playgrounds. Kleiderer says the new playground — funded entirely by a $1 million Providence community benefit grant — "resonates so closely with our mission. We're fostering connections among people."

Providence is among a sampling of Catholic health facilities that are building their communities playgrounds that kids of all abilities can enjoy. Other playground innovators include Ascension St. Vincent Evansville in Indiana, CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini in Alexandria, Louisiana, and SSM Health's Agnesian HealthCare in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. All of their playgrounds are open, with COVID infection prevention guidelines in effect.

Not a luxury
Andie Daisley is a certified child life specialist at Spokane's Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children's Hospital and a member of a committee convened to consult on the design of Providence Playscape. She says through play children learn to identify and process feelings.

Committee members included pediatric health experts, parents of disabled children and other community members. The end product of their collaboration with playground designer Inclusion Matters is a colorful, 11,600-square-foot section of Spokane's Riverfront Park that has more than 20 play pieces to stimulate the senses.

There is a wheelchair-accessible We-Go-Round turning platform, swings for children of differing abilities, a sensory wall and sand table for tactile stimulation, musical chimes for auditory pleasure and an enclosure where children can retreat to seek calm. Inclusion Matters donated the park's design.

Kleiderer says play "is not a luxury, it is a necessity," and the Playscape ensures kids of all abilities feel inspired to explore.

Early adopter
Agnesian HealthCare, a member of SSM Health, and the Agnesian HealthCare Foundation were early supporters of accessible and inclusive play spaces. The Agnesian HealthCare Foundation funded a "barrier-free" playground in Fond du Lac's Lakeside Park in 2007, giving the community its first wheelchair-accessible playground.

The foundation of Agnesian HealthCare, a member of SSM Health, provided funds for this all-abilities playground at the Rock River Intermediate School in Waupun, Wisconsin. Here, fifth graders take a ride on one of the 24 pieces of equipment.

Last year, the Agnesian HealthCare Foundation contributed $44,000 for an all-abilities playground at the Rock River Intermediate School in rural Waupun, about 20 miles from Fond du Lac. Waupun Memorial Hospital, part of Agnesian HealthCare, serves the Waupun community. The playground has 24 play pieces that can be used by kids of all abilities. Funded entirely by grants, the playground was the brainchild of two moms whose disabled sons in the past had to watch at a distance as their classmates played on old playground equipment at recess.

Shawn Fisher, Agnesian HealthCare Foundation's executive director, says both playgrounds' design and equipment address the needs of children with developmental delays, special sensory requirements and other physical challenges. She says, "It has been truly rewarding to see how our communities have completely wrapped their arms around these efforts." This support includes fundraising. Another Waupun-area school hopes to build its own accessible and all-abilities playground.

Skill building
At Ascension St. Vincent Evansville, the on-campus, donor-funded Patricia Browning Stone Sensory Playground can be used comfortably year-round because it is an indoor-outdoor therapy play space. Opened in spring 2019, it has a variety of equipment that provides sensory-rich play experiences and that is accessible to children with a wide range of ages and abilities, says Dr. Maria Del Rio, medical director, pediatrics service line, Ascension St. Vincent Evansville.

Clinicians — including occupational, physical and speech therapists — join their young patients and their families to use the play equipment for therapy work that doesn't feel like work, says Del Rio. The play space is open to the community's kids during select hours.

A child plays during the October opening event at an all-abilities playground in Alexandria, Louisiana, funded by the foundation of CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini.

Del Rio says the equipment helps pediatric patients improve motor skills and balance, build social skills, exercise their imagination, engage with family members and peers and practice self-calming techniques. The Star Institute for Sensory Processing Disorders consulted with Ascension St. Vincent on the playground's design to help ensure play pieces would be therapeutically sound for children with sensory issues.

"Helping children through play is very important," Del Rio says. "They can adapt better if this therapy is done through play. The work (of therapy) is less scary if it is done through play."

Family support
Lauren Guillory, manager of the CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Pediatric Therapy Center, was part of a team of pediatric therapy experts who helped to pick play equipment for the Coughlin Sanders Inclusive Playground. CHRISTUS Cabrini Foundation supported the playground through planning and fundraising efforts. The playground opened in September on land donated by a local stadium.

The Patricia Browning Stone Sensory Playground at Ascension St. Vincent Evansville's Center for Children has indoor and outdoor therapeutic play areas. Clinicians from the center bring patients to the playground for therapy that feels like play.

The playground has equipment that is therapeutic for children with physical disabilities, autism, cognitive impairments, sensory processing disorders and other conditions. CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Health System explains that different pieces of equipment promote physical, social-emotional, sensory and cognitive development. This equipment includes wheelchair-accessible slides, a roller slide, a sensory wave seat, music-making equipment and a horizontal climbing wall for kids with mobility challenges.

Guillory hopes that families who have children who are disabled — and who may have felt isolated in the past — will connect with one another at the playground and form an informal support network. She notes that "the Central Louisiana community has a staggering number of children with special needs."

She says the playground can provide the fun, challenges and stimulation that children with special needs require. "For the first time in our community, these children will be able to be included in playground fun," which she says will boost their self-esteem, confidence and social engagement.

Watch a video of children at play at the Spokane playground.


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