Park playground transformation creates space for inclusive play

The playground at Milham Park has undergone a transformation that has created a model for inclusive play for children with disabilities. 

It’s about time, says Norman Peak, 38, of the park that hasn’t undergone improvements in two decades. He grew up visiting the 49-acre park in Kalamazoo’s Milwood neighborhood.

“I grew up in a family where we had many physical and mental disabilities, so I know firsthand what it's like to be somewhere where you can't play,” says Peak. “It does have an effect on you. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you shouldn't have fun. Kids are kids. This is a beautiful way for our tax dollars to be put to work.”

Milham Park is an example of a growing trend across Michigan — and the United States — to create playgrounds that are accessible for people of all abilities. 

Milham Park is ‘a staple’

Peak appreciates that the city of Kalamazoo chose to invest in an inclusive playground at Milham Park.

“If you're from the Kalamazoo area, this is a staple. You've either been here to play yourself as a kid, or you brought your kids. This is where you have your birthday parties or other celebrations,” says Peak, who on a recent Saturday was with his daughter, Kennedy, who was having a play date with a friend. 

The $515,000 transformation project was funded in part by a $286,000 grant from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.

Milham Park has added accessible playground equipment. (Shandra Martinez)

Accessible to all children

The additional capital was helpful in incorporating more accessible features, which can be more expensive than traditional park equipment, explains Kalamazoo’s Parks and Recreation Director Patrick McVerry.

“In designing the playground, we wanted to incorporate accessible areas of play for all children. We try to do that at any park that is undergoing a new playground build,” McVerry says.

As part of the design process, the city held public input sessions to get ideas from the community on elements they would like to see at the playground. Then, the city worked with a design firm, and the playground vendor incorporated those ideas into drawings, within budget, of what the playground may look like. The ideas were then taken back to the community for approval.  

Expression Swing

The park has an Expression Swing that allows a parent to face a child as they swing. It’s designed to promote intergenerational play as adults and children swing together. There’s a bucket seat for children 5 and younger and a comfortable adult swing seat that allows a parent and child to interact with each other and experience the other’s facial expressions while playing.

There’s also a swing for children who require additional support to swing with their friends. This could include someone who uses a wheelchair.

“I'm really excited that they have this here. We've driven past as we’ve watched the construction. This is one of those places where now, say, if you do have a child that has physical disabilities or has autism, you have somewhere you can go,” Peak says.

Milham Park now features an accessible playground. (Shandra Martinez)

So far, the response has been positive to the new playground, adds McVerry.

“The playground was completed right before the snow, so we haven’t had a majority of the community use the new playground yet, but the reaction has been great thus far,” he says.

‘Quiet playscape’

On this Saturday, the playground was busy with children of all abilities, which shows the power of creating an accessible playground. The playground is configured with equipment geared toward ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 11. It includes a “quiet playscape” for children with special needs, and a wheelchair-friendly concrete path and ramp leading to the play area.

There are interactive pieces that create sounds, a large climbing structure in the 5-to-11-year-old area, and signage to help with communication.

The quiet playscape combines the soothing benefits of nature with sensory activities to help children alleviate stress without having to leave the playground. It is designed to reduce the sights, sounds, and even smells that can overstimulate. The space is designed to give a child rest with a parent or caregiver, a secure place to refocus before heading back to play. It also includes activities to allow multiple children to spin, push, click, and move objects.

Helpful expertise 

For other communities considering the construction of an accessible park, McVerry suggests they aim to do as much as possible. Some of the pieces are quite expensive, but, with outside funding opportunities and grants, they can be a great addition to any park system. 

It was also helpful to work with an organization with expertise in accessibility, he adds. Kalamazoo turned to the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan (DNSWM) for input on the design and compliance aspects of the playground.

“They have great expertise and ideas that enhance any project, and are great to work with,” says McVerry.

Yvonne Fleener, President and CEO of DNSWM, commends Kalamazoo's Parks and Recreation and the Gilmore Foundation for their dedication to building accessible and inclusive communities.

"This inclusive playground is more than just a recreational area, but a space that embraces diversity, promotes empathy, and nurtures a sense of belonging for all children," Fleener says. 

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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