Physical therapist calls for more accessible playgrounds

Oak Parker says parks have inclusive features, but could do better

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Haviva Siegel, an Oak Park pediatric physical therapist, gives the Park District of Oak Park a lot of credit for making some of its playgrounds accessible to kids with disabilities. But she believes that the park district could do more.

She made her case during Park District of Oak Park Board of Commissioners' Sept. 19 meeting. As Siegel elaborated in a follow-up interview with the Journal, she was specifically looking to ensure that playground fits the needs of kids with mobility issues, as well as kids with developmental and behavioral disorders. While playgrounds, she said, already have a lot of accessible features, it wouldn't take much to build upon that.

Siegel said that she didn't have all the answers, which is why she was asking for a dialogue. Both the board and the staff seemed receptive, and she said she was hopeful that dialogue would continue. Given how much money the district spends on park renovations, she said, it only made sense to try to get the best possible results.

Siegel is an Oak Parker herself, and her practice, Bee Loved Kids Therapy, takes her all across the region. As she explained to the board, she works with families with kids that have "physical, emotional [and] social/emotional development challenges." 

As part of her work, she takes kids to playgrounds -- so she got a first-hand look at both their strengths and shortcomings. 

Siegel told the Journal she was specifically thinking of several different populations. There are those who use wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices, but there are others with less obvious disabilities, such as developmental coordination disorder, which is also known as dyspraxia, where kids have trouble moving around the way they are supposed to once they reach a certain age range.

"Three year olds should be able to climb stairs [but] they might be crawling," Siegel said. "They might not start jumping until [they're] 3."

There also are kids on the autism spectrum as well as those born with some developmental issues. 

"Children who have developmental differences, or cognitive differences, or anxiety —some have a tendency to go into fight or flight [when stressed]," Siegel said.

In other words, they are more likely to simply run off, or chase after a ball somebody else is playing with nearby. Alternatively, they might have trouble playing with other kids and would rather spend time alone around the playground perimeter. 

Siegel used Longfellow Park playground as an example of a park that already does many things right. The main play structure has a subtle ramp running between the slides, bars along the railings that kids with mobility issues can grab to stay upright, and one of the swings is deliberately designed to make it easier for kids in wheelchairs can get on. And it helps that those improvements are "inclusive." 

When the Journal visited the park, she pointed out that it wasn't just the kids in wheelchairs who used the accessible swing, and kids who didn't need bars to stay upright could play on them in other ways.

When asked for examples of what kind of changes she wants to see, Siegel suggested adding fencing around the playground and using sandboxes -- the former to make sure kids don't stray and the latter because she saw it as a better, more inclusive alternative to woodchips. And she specifically wanted to focus on parks that the park district is planning to renovate, such as Rehm Park. 

Siegel said that there were plenty of specialists who would be willing and able to help the park district improve the designs.

"There's tons of child development specialists [in Oak Park], so I think that if people put their heads together, we can make an award-winning [playground]," she said. 

The park board showed willingness to at least talk to Siegel in more detail. Board Vice President David Wick invited Siegel to reach out to him by e-mail. Chris Lindgren, who serves as the park district's superintendent of buildings and grounds and its Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, spoke to Siegel at length after the meeting. 

After the meeting, she said that she was hopeful 

"I have been wanting to try to talk and get the conversation going for a while," Siegel said. "I think there's brilliance in this community and we need to take advantage of this capacity."

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