In the spring of 2021, Bellingham Public Schools convened the Playgrounds Standards Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee as a way to set in place a new set of guidelines for choosing playground equipment and surfacing. At that time, three new elementary schools were under construction, and the district wanted to be intentional and informed as decisions were made for play spaces for elementary students. Knowing how vital play and physical activity are for healthy child development, getting the right playgrounds meant some focused attention on it.
Director of Capital Projects Curtis Lawyer served as the co-chair of the committee. He shared that through the presentations and discussions his eyes were opened to new understanding of the importance of playgrounds and play and that “motion and play are an integral and important aspect of learning for every child on a daily basis.”
“Our playgrounds should be accessible for every student,” he continued. “It really came to my attention through this work that many of our playgrounds are deficient in terms of access.”
As the committee met, they discovered how outdated many of our playgrounds were, and although built to ADA specifications, how difficult many surfaces are for students who are wheelchair users, for example, to access play structures.
Based on the information gathered, the presentations by expert-level guests, explanatory videos by Special Education teachers, and group discussions, the standards committee made a recommendation to Superintendent Greg Baker to move any new school playgrounds or expansions to universal design. Universal design is a term that incorporates not only accessibility and inclusivity, but is a playground design usable by all and enjoyed by everyone. The motto for the committee became a key idea shared by one of the guest presenters Mara Kaplan: “The coolest thing is accessible to all!” This simple idea is one that encourages inclusion, belonging and healthy relationships on the playground.
Sarah Catudio, Special Education teacher in Wade King’s Life Skills classroom, also served on the playground committee and was very happy to be a part of the district recommendation. She is excited to see the momentum build in this area.
“For me, the new playground standards exemplify The Bellingham Promise that all students are loved,” Catudio shared.
“There is such power for our students and their families to be welcomed with play spaces that visually communicate that all children are not only welcome, but have the right to engage in meaningful learning and leisure alongside their peers.”
Alongside the recommendation, the ad hoc advisory committee developed “Playgrounds in Bellingham Public Schools: a Plan for Universal Design” to represent a set of key values and guidelines as the district makes choices about future playgrounds.
The important work of the Playground Standards Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee took place ahead of the construction and installation of the newest playgrounds at Alderwood and Parkview elementary schools. The Alderwood preschool playground opened in December 2021, the Parkview playground in January 2022, and the full Alderwood playground is slated to open in early February 2022. (Fall rain and wintry weather set these outdoor projects back by a few months.)
The new Sunnyland Elementary School, set to open in September 2022, will also include a universal design playground concept.