Boulder Valley School District

Bond investments aim to transform recess for students with disabilities

Staff on playground
Susan Cousins

En Español

Ask nearly any elementary student what their favorite part of the school day is and you are likely to hear a resounding, “RECESS!” This welcome break in the school day brings a chance to get outside, play, socialize, and recharge. However, for students with physical, emotional or cognitive disabilities, play equipment options can be limited and hard to get to. 

The Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) is working to change that on 16 elementary campuses by investing over $7 million in playground improvements through the 2022 Building for Student Success program. Renovations will be made at schools with intensive learning centers (ILC) and will include new equipment to provide more play options as well as solid surfacing for easier maneuverability for students using mobility devices. Students at six schools, including Eisenhower, Foothill, Kohl, Lafayette, Louisville Elementary, and Nederland Elementary will get to experience the new playgrounds as soon as August of this year. 

BVSD 's ILCs serve students with different learning needs who require a special education team to help them be able to learn throughout their school day. Their academic needs may be affected by behavior, physical, and/or cognitive needs.

The vision is to create playgrounds where children of all abilities can play, be challenged, and have fun together. This means going beyond basic wheelchair accessibility. 

To explore what these improvements could look like at schools, a design advisory team (DAT) that includes parents, occupational and physical therapists, principals, a teacher, and BVSD’s ADA compliance specialist as well as our Special Education executive director, has been meeting with playground designer Design Concepts since last fall. 

Foothill principal Sennen Knauer, who is a member of the DAT, explained that the parents and therapists on the team helped make sure kids’ voices were represented too. 

“There was an occupational therapist (OT) who brought in letters from students about what would be helpful,” she explained. “Particularly around playground equipment, they have definite opinions.”

Creating play experiences for all
The group has been working to develop a set of preferred equipment options and design elements to be used in all projects.

Bear Creek Principal Tanner Dayhoff, another member of the DAT, said that it has been typical for BVSD to provide accessible equipment at a school when there was a student enrolled that needed it. However, that equipment was often isolated and options were limited.

“We’ve had to work really hard with our OTs to create an opportunity, whether that’s putting in an accessible swing or looking at how we get a wheelchair up onto a structure,” Dayhoff explained. 

The playground renovations aim to provide multiple ways for students with disabilities to play and to integrate those options into areas where all students will be playing. 

Janice Moore, a physical therapist who works at several BVSD schools, explains that a guiding principle for the design has been thinking about students as explorers who should be able to come to a setting and decide for themselves what they might be interested in trying. 

“We don’t want to restrict a child’s access because of how we think they might be limited  because of their disability. We want learners to be able to decide what they want to do and be able to get to it,” Moore explained.

Moore said that this translates to features like play structures with wider ramps so that there is space for students with and without mobility equipment as well as adults to support the experiences when needed. The ramps will lead to play options such as slides or interactive panels that are fun for students of all abilities. Play panels will also be available at ground level along with other elements such as enclosed playhouses that accommodate wheelchairs or sensory walls. 

Students will be able to enjoy the thrill of motion on a ground-level merry-go-round that wheelchairs can roll onto and spinners with deep, supportive seats. These curved types of seats also make bouncing equipment more accessible. Some of the new equipment will have both sitting and standing options so students have choices for how to use it. 

Swings are perennially popular with all kids. Currently, a number of BVSD playgrounds have universal “bucket” seat swings that provide torso support for students who need it. More of these swings will be installed, along with other options such as nest/disc swings that are easier to climb into.  

New, wider slides mean two or more students can use the equipment at the same time. And, students who need extra time at the bottom of the slide to wait for a mobility device or caregiver, can take that time without preventing others from using the slide. 

Creating opportunities for social connections
With these projects, BVSD is aiming to make playgrounds more inclusive and to encourage more social interaction among students of differing abilities. 

According to Knauer, the vision is that all kids can play together more. Instead of being limited to a swing with a paraeducator pushing them, they could get to the play structure and, with help if needed, engage with the other kids who are there.  

This happens by integrating accessible features into play structures and equipment so that students with disabilities can be part of the action and play alongside their friends. At one school, a “friendship” swing will have two bucket seats that face each other so that multiple kids of different abilities can swing together. At another school, a glider has bench seats as well as a space for a wheelchair. 

“In the past we’ve been able to get equipment in place but it was isolated. So the stuff that we are trying to bring in now will be accessible to all kids and also provide truly authentic opportunities for socialization that haven’t otherwise been available when there were wood chips or gravel that couldn’t be navigated or swings that were intended for just one kid,” Dayhoff explained.

Access will be easier too
Ensuring students can get to the new equipment is essential and the renovation plans account for that too. On many BVSD playgrounds, the fall zone around play equipment is filled with wood mulch, known in the industry as engineered wood fiber, or EWF. It is considered accessible by regulatory standards, but in practice is hard to navigate for kids who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. 

BVSD has been increasingly using solid, rubberized surfaces on playgrounds and will strategically expand its use in the new playground renovations. The solid surfacing will be used in larger areas around play equipment and to create wide lanes to connect areas and play experiences. 

In addition to being more accessible, this material has the advantage of lower maintenance needs compared to EWF which frequently blows out of play areas (often into neighbors’ yards) and has to be cleaned up and refreshed frequently. Rubberized surfaces also add fun, colorful elements to playgrounds.

Something to celebrate
Knauer says that for Foothill, the timing could not be more perfect. Next year, the ILC at the school will grow from 10 to 15. 

“I’m really grateful for it,” Knauer commented. “I think that in a very real way, it lets everybody in our community know about Foothill’s commitment and BVSD’s commitment to looking after and caring about the experience of all the children in our district.” 

Dayhoff agreed, “The fact that we are doing this important work to increase access on our playgrounds is a really big deal. It’s going to ultimately impact all kids, but it’s going to make a life-changing difference for some kids who haven’t otherwise had that access. This is something to celebrate.”


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