As city officials congratulated those who helped build St. Charles' first universally accessible playground, a group of kids eagerly eyed its new equipment and other features.
The threat of rain, amid cold temperatures, was still in the air Friday, but the kids wanted to be the first to play in Discovery Playground, now part of Jaycee Park between Elm and Sibley streets and the north end of Rebecca Drive.
Fourteen months ago, the $850,000 playground project was just a concept. On Friday, city officials and others gathered to dedicate it. Parks and Recreation Director Maralee Britton, parks board Chairman T.J. Slattery, Mayor Sally Faith and Natalie Blakemore, co-founder of Unlimited Play, all spoke during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Then the kids hurriedly dispersed to run, climb and swing in the 50,000-square-foot adventure-themed area.
Unlimited Play, a nonprofit organization formed in 2003, has been a driving force in creating the all-inclusive Discovery Playground, Zachary's Playground in Lake Saint Louis, Brendan's Playground in O'Fallon's Westhoff Park and Tree Top Playground in Clayton's Shaw Park.
"Unlimited Play was formed because of my son, Zachary, to allow him to play side by side with friends," Blakemore said. "It's amazing, a dream come true to open our fourth playground and watch kids play side by side."
Zachary was born with a severe disability that confines him to a wheelchair, so even a trip to a standard playground didn't provide him with an opportunity to play.
"As a mom I couldn't give back his legs, but this was the one thing if I fought for and if I worked hard it would give him a chance to play," Natalie said. "All of us have childhood memories on the playground."
Discovery Playground was a collective effort by the city, Unlimited Play and St. Charles County's Developmental Disability Resource Board. The City Council allocated $220,000 in gaming revenue for the project; the DDRB kicked in $250,000; the city Parks and Recreation Board allocated $192,000; and $85,000 in donations came from individuals, nonprofit organizations and businesses. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources added $95,000, and the city parks department received an $8,000 grant from the American Dermatology Association to provide the shade structure. Eight contractors were involved in building the park.
"We have numerous playgrounds and parks, and this one goes far beyond any that we have right now," said Chris Atkinson, assistant parks and recreation director. "It's all inclusive. It goes above federal regulations that we, by law, have to do when we build a playground. It has a one-of-a-kind water feature you won't see anywhere else."
Ramp systems from top to bottom of the park allow people with limited mobility to access all of the playground features. There are transfer stations, specialized seating, hand-holds and slanted climbing systems to allow easier passage through the park.
No matter how safe and accessible a playground is, kids will fall down, so rubberized surfaces made from recycled tires were installed throughout the park to make those falls less painful. Those surfaces also make it easier for people using wheelchairs or walkers to navigate through the area.
"What makes this unique is people of all abilities can play together, whether they're adults or children," said Ted Spaid, principal of S-W-T Design, which designed the park. "They can enjoy the sense of height of the playground. Most playgrounds have steps and you can't get to the top. This playground was designed so everybody can enter up high and be able to see everything."
Landscaping and musical elements were added to provide a sensory-rich experience for park users. Tuned drums, aluminum chimes, Braille signs and a waterfall built to resemble Missouri bluffs are part of the park experience. Stainless steel slides and roller slides enable children with Cochlear ear implants to enjoy those features. Swings were built to adapt to children who otherwise might not be physically able to use them, and a saucer swing is designed for several children to use at the same time.
The waterfall leads to a water play area where geysers of water shoot up from the ground. During the summer, the water play area and shaded area will help kids stay cool. The water gets recycled and goes into an irrigation system providing a green feature.
Slattery, the parks board chairman, said playgrounds are more than just a place to play.
"Playgrounds just don't happen, they require vision and passion," Slattery said. "They enable integration, communication and imagination."