Accessible Playgrounds
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Level playing fields
Playgrounds that welcome kids with disabilities

By Theodore Fischer, Sidewalk

All kids love playgrounds, but all playgrounds don't love every kid. Fortunately, a pair of local playgrounds conceived and constructed with the invincible energy of parental love go all-out to make themselves accessible both to able-bodied children and children with disabilities.


The nation's first fully accessible playground, Opportunity Park (pictured at top and left), opened in 1994 while Americans With Disabilities Act standards for children's playgrounds were still on the drawing board. Located in Allen Pond Park in Bowie, Md., it contains typical slides and climbers plus special equipment accessible to children (and adults) with a variety of disabilities.

The components of Opportunity Park motto: "So that all may play" include a tot lot with forgiving artificial surfaces (no wheelchair-clogging wood chips) and play equipment with easy-to-hold grips. The bright-colored slides and other devices are fit into space-saving close-to-the-ground mounds. A larger playground for school-age children is fully ramped and totally wheelchair accessible. It more than compensates for slides that fall short of the stratosphere with an intricate array of steps, climbers and tunnels. In both areas, tactile mazes, tick-tack-toe games and alphabets appeal to the visually impaired.

The wheelchair-accessible Nature and Sensory Trail provides a short but eventful circuit through the woods with seven interactive stations including a fragrance box and animal tracks cast in cement. It's on the other side of the baseball diamond, a short hop from the school-age playground.

Opportunity Park is the dream come true of Mary Johnson, a local resident who found that her son Matthew, in a wheelchair because of spina bifida, couldn't join in all of the fun at most playgrounds. After obtaining input from parents of children with other disabilities, she mustered the political support and mobilized a fund-raising campaign that launched construction of the playground in 1993.

But Opportunity Park is hardly the only reason to visit Allen Pond Park, as hordes of visitors confirm each weekend. A wheelchair-accessible path runs the length of the park, and the Bowie Ice Arena in the park offers more than 20 hours of public skating weekly.

Allen Pond itself is stocked with fish and has a wheelchair-accessible pier (a Maryland fishing license is required). You can rent paddle boats, rowboats and canoes but don't even think about floating under the water spout and pick up a guide to all park facilities at the boathouse. There are no concessions in the park itself, but an ice cream van in the parking lot can handle urgent hunger.

The optimum Allen Pond experience may be a picnic to the tune of the Sunday Concert Series in the outdoor amphitheater (see schedule below). From now through Labor Day, the free concerts are only-in-summer, only-on-Sunday opportunities everyone can enjoy.

Directions: From Beltway Exit 19, take U.S. 50 east to Exit 11 (Collington Road, Route 197). Go south on Collington Road. Turn right at Northview Drive and continue to entrance to Allen Pond Park lot.


Hadley's Playground in Potomac, Md., is also a labor of mother love. When Shelley Kramm's infant daughter Hadley, now 7, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Kramm launched a campaign that, combining political with financial might, culminated this June in the opening of a deluxe one-acre accessible playground on the edge of Falls Road Local Park.

The hundreds of contributors are memorialized with bricks leading to play areas. However, the play areas themselves are paved with an Astroturf-like substance composed of recycled tires that's firm enough for wheelchairs (and walkers, strollers and bikes) but soft enough to cushion falls. Most of the surface is pale green except for a strip of black highway that links the elaborate and still pristine theme play areas: a bright and cheery pirate ship, a medieval-style castle and a Lincoln-Log green-and-brown frontier town.

While each area brims with play equipment swings, straight and twisting slides, ladders, pulleys, rope bridges, climbing walls to challenge all children, some features appeal especially to children with disabilities. Autistic children can express themselves with picture-communication signs. The visually handicapped can read signs in Braille, play tick-tack-toe and explore a tactile globe. The spaces for hopscotch and four-square are big enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

In Hadley's Playground even the landscaping has an impact, with flowers and shrubs chosen to maximize tactile pleasure and heighten butterfly and bird appeal. And amid the plantings is posted a copy of "Welcome to Holland" (outside link), Emily Perl Kingsley's inspirational observations about raising a child with a disability.

On a practical note, Hadley's Playground has portable toilets but no concessions and no water. Be sure to bring your own liquids because the playground's trees, though ample in number, are still too new to provide much shade.

Directions: From the Beltway take Interstate 270 north to Exit 5 (Falls Road, Route 189). Drive west about one mile. Hadley's Playground is on the right.


Opportunity Park, Allen Pond Park, 3330 Northview Dr., Bowie, Md., (301) 262-6200
Allen Pond Park boat rentals, (301) 262-6200, ext. 3116. Open weekends 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. through Labor Day. Canoes and rowboats: Bowie residents $3 per half-hour, $5 per hour; nonresidents $4 per half-hour, $6 per hour. Paddle boats: residents $4 per half-hour, $5 per hour.
Sunday Concert Series, (301) 809-3009. Sundays 7 to 8 p.m. through Labor Day. Aug. 8, the Smile Band (R&B); Aug. 15, the Grandsons (rockabilly); Aug. 22, U.S. Naval Academy Electric Brigade (hot hits); Aug. 29, U.S. Air Force High Flight (show band); Sept. 5, the Moonlighters (traditional American).

Hadley's Playground, Falls Road Local Park, 12600 Falls Rd. near Falls Chapel Way, Potomac, Md., (301) 424-2112

Other accessible playgrounds

Martin Luther King Jr. Playground for All Children, Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Park, 1100 Jackson Rd., Silver Spring, Md., (301) 622-1193
Lake Accotink Park, 7500 Accotink Park Rd., Springfield, Va., (703) 569-3464
South Run District Park, 7550 Reservation Dr., Springfield, Va., (703) 866-0566
Tysons Woods Park, 8424 Overlook St., Vienna, Va., (703) 255-6500
Wolf Trails Park, 9328 Old Courthouse Rd., Vienna, Va., (703) 255-6500

Theodore Fischer, 1801 August Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20902, Tel: 301-593-9797, Fax: 301-593-9798, email: