If you are planning to refurbish the play area on your playing field, it is vital to consider the needs and abilities of all children. A successful play area is one that all children can access and enjoy, regardless of their ability. The play area on the King George V Playing Field, off Topsham Road in Exeter has recently been rated as number 6 in the ’30 most impressive accessible and inclusive playgrounds’ – a piece of research published by the Keiser University Graduate School in Florida. This achievement is particularly impressive as it is the only UK play area to feature in the list.
Miriam Guard, the inspiration and driving force behind the establishment of the Play Park in Exeter, tells the inspirational story of how it came into being.
In 2006 I encountered a mother with a son who had severe autism. She also had other children. In a conversation about the summer and what we would be doing in the nice weather she told me that during the 6 week school holiday, she couldn’t go out with her children as the boy with autism ran off and she couldn’t leave the little siblings while she chased after him. As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, I couldn’t really begin to imagine how awful this must be – to be cooped up indoors and unable to go out for walks and play. It set me thinking and I decided that I would try and create a safe outdoor space where she and her children could go and enjoy outdoor play. This coincided with the then government giving 16 million pounds, ‘Playful ideas’, to the Big Lottery Fund to distribute to successful bidders.
To cut a long story short, after a great deal of consultation with parents of children with a wide range of disabilities, children and young people, professionals and anyone else I thought might be able to help, I submitted a funding bid to the BLF and was fortunate enough to be awarded over £125,000. In order to comply with the BLF terms, I secured a 10 year lease from Exeter City Council, planning permission and I raised further funds to enable the play park to become a reality. Exeter Mencap owns the equipment and pays for the insurance and ECC maintain it for us free of charge. On our own, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the play park so as to comply with the insurers requirements so this working partnership between ourselves, a small local charity, and ECC is vital for the play parks existence. We are extremely grateful to ECC’s Parks Department for all the invaluable work they do for the play park.
The play park opened in December 2008 and there was an official opening in March 2009 (on the play park website there is a short video of the BBC’s reporting of the opening) In the early months the play park suffered from repeated mindless vandalism from local teenagers. Even with the deterrent of CCTV cameras, they carried on regardless. After about 18 months of this, we were very fortunate to have an extremely pro-active Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) and he had the vandals dealt with. Due to his enthusiastic intervention, the play park is now virtually vandal free. We have twice engaged a local community artist to work with children in the two local primary schools and the nearby special schools to produce some wonderful murals which are put up in the play park. This has helped the children to have a sense of ownership and they take great pride in the play park and enjoy playing there.
The design is not ‘rocket science’ but it has been carefully thought out to enable children with a very wide range of disabilities to access the facility. For wheelchair users, equipment is accessed by level tarmac paths, the sand pit is ramped, the equipment is accessible, the PECS signs enable non verbal children to communicate their wishes, children with limited or no sight can use the Braille signs to find their way around. Non-disabled children enjoy playing on all the equipment whether it is accessible to wheelchairs or not.
The play park is an unsupervised community resource which is never locked. As such it would be too much for a small local charity like our own to run it single handedly. Good working partnerships with ECC, the Police and the local community are essential to ensure its existence and future.
The play park is very popular with children of all abilities and it is a wonderful sight to see true inclusive play taking place there. Exeter Mencap is extremely proud of its play park and we are delighted to have been selected to feature 6th in a list of 30 Most Impressive Accessible and Inclusive Playgrounds in the world.