The new handicapped-accessible, million-dollar playground being built at Central Park will also serve as therapy for children, teaching them how to walk and use their arms as they play.
The city decided Monday to purchase 82 new pieces of equipment to fill the former Tiny Tots Land. The items can be used by all children — disabled or not — and run the gamut from the typical swing set to an unusual rock-climbing wall.
While it’s all designed to be fun, the equipment comes with a further purpose. Most of the new items are recommended by national disability advocate groups as the ideal equipment to encourage children to challenge their limits.
There are handholds throughout the raised platforms to support children who can barely walk. At the slides and tunnel, there are handholds to help children learn how to transfer themselves out of their wheelchairs. The tunnel is also lined with “pull-through” grips so children who cannot walk can navigate it.
Much of the equipment has also been designed for children without disabilities. They’ll be enjoying climbing to the top of the new rock wall, while children with disabilities can do pull-ups on the lower grips to develop upper-body strength. They, too, can eventually reach the top, a goal that experts say will be far more motivating than regular therapy.
Children who can sit up — disabled or not — have a slide to race down, while those who haven’t yet mastered sitting can still gain a measure of independence by using the “slither” slide.
There will be a few items that disabled children aren’t likely to be able to use, including a twisty staircase to a platform with a telescope.
REACH THE HEIGHTS
But unlike the previous platform at the site, children in wheelchairs will be able to reach the heights. Ramps connect all three new platforms to each other and the ground, and items on the platforms — like the telescope — are supposed to be installed within arm’s reach of a child sitting in a wheelchair. Previously, children could reach just one low area at the playground, and even there, the toys on the wall were just out of reach.
The new playground will also feature three types of swings — baby swings, wheelchair-accessible swings, and regular swings. The wheelchair-accessible swings will be placed near the others so the children can interact while they swing.
The original concept behind Tiny Tots Land won’t be forgotten in the new plan. It calls for 15 items to be placed in a separate area for children ages 2 to 5. Those children get their own rock wall — a low, tunnel-like wall with child-sized grips to help players learn to stand and climb.
The equipment will cost $262,000, but none of that will come from the city. The county offered the city the grant funds used to buy the playground equipment. The state also paid for most of the surface improvements, including an expensive rubberized ground material that will cover the entire site. The material allows wheelchairs to roll along smoothly instead of getting bogged down in dirt and sand.
The state chipped in $440,000 for the $1 million project, and the county gave the city $375,000. The city spent about $200,000 on sidewalks and handicapped parking, which Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said he realized was needed when he toured other handicap-accessible playgrounds.
“I saw playgrounds that were accessible, but literally you couldn’t get there,” he said. “Sure, it was accessible — if you could walk.”
The sidewalks and playground surface cost more than all of the playground equipment put together. But finding the money to pay for that wasn’t the only challenge. City officials also wanted to design a handicap-accessible playground that would draw children who weren’t disabled.
“The notion is to get all children, regardless of their level of ability, playing together,” said Councilman Mark Blanchfield. “This is a very significant project for the city. It’s really giving access to all children. It’s not limited to children with mobility restrictions.”
It wasn’t easy to do — Olsen and others spent years applying for grants before they could afford the variety of equipment that would be needed — but Olsen thinks the final product will be quite popular.
“It’s definitely cool. You’ve never seen a playground like this before,” he said.
The playground should be complete by the first week of October, Olsen said.