Over-cautious Seattle Parks deals blow to kids with special needs

Guest Opinion: A missive from the Department has neutered a once-beloved play structure for children with special needs.
Guest Opinion: A missive from the Department has neutered a once-beloved play structure for children with special needs.

In mid-October, the Seattle Parks department notified the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden that we would have to dismantle a much-loved play area, citing “extreme dangers” and “hazardous conditions”. These so-called liabilities consisted of a four-foot rope ladder, secured at its top and base, a simple tree swing suspended from a large cedar tree, and a unique nest made of thick rope and bicycle tires.

Crosscut archive image.

Luca on the ladder. Luca's parents say that he plays at the PlayGarden like nowhere else. Photo: Hannah Gallagher

These simple play features may seem ordinary, but to our campers they are anything but. Here children with cerebral palsy, autism and developmental delays are encouraged and assisted as needed to climb and swing alongside their typically developing peers. The joy is palpable.

We complied with the order, but it has left a bitter taste in our mouths. Our kids have been robbed of the simple pleasure of climbing and swinging under a beautiful tree.

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This basic wood and rope swing under a big cedar tree promotes social interaction and provides a physical challenge. Photo: Hannah Gallagher

What we call the Wild Zone was designed to provide relief from the highly controlled and often hyper-medicalized world our kids move in. We are deeply unsettled and frustrated by their loss.

A private non-profit in in south central Seattle, the Seattle Children's PlayGarden is dedicated to providing children of all ages and abilities a safe, accessible and adventurous place to play away from therapy, doctor’s offices, tutoring and school. Thousands of children have played here over the last nine years under the supervision of PlayGarden staff or a parent’s watchful eye. There might even be a few lucky children who have played here free from any hovering adult.

None of them have been significantly injured — not a sprain nor a fracture nor a serious wound among them.

The demise of the Wild Zone is only the latest in a long history of the dumbing down of installations at the PlayGarden. In 2010, it took an act of the City Council for the Parks department to allow us to install one of our most popular and engaging features: a chicken coop and flower bed constructed from a reclaimed pick-up truck. In 2013, the world-renowned artist Trimpin designed an interactive musical sculpture for our garden, but the moving parts were deemed too hazardous. The sculpture as it stands is less engaging and less accessible than the original vision. Similarly, after long negotiations, plans for a wheelchair accessible tree fort became, essentially, a deck.

Are playgrounds too safe? Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic Magazine argues that “…a preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking and discovery-without making it safer...” and The Journal of Pediatrics posits that “…stricter licensing codes intended to reduce children's injuries on playgrounds [have] rendered playgrounds less physically challenging and interesting.”

The New York Times reports that this over focus on safety may not help reduce injuries at all. “There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” says David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. Ball notes that the risk of some injuries, such as long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

Children with special needs deserve to have adventures. They deserve opportunities to take risks, to conquer fears, to be independent, to experience the thrills that the outdoors offer the rest of us. There are innovative exciting new models for adventure play in other cities. Portland, Ore. sports a new nature playground, the Westmoreland Nature Play area, and in Ithaca, New York, kids are encouraged to play with freedom at Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone.

Seattle and its Parks department must take note.

Meanwhile, we at the PlayGarden will keep fighting to ensure that every kid can swing, build and create; fall down and get back up again.


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