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In the spring of 1997, the Foundation for the Junior Blind set out to create an innovative playground for its school-age children who are multiply disabled and also blind or visually impaired. The playground was the last phase of a major renovation of the eight-acre facility that began in the early 1990s. The challenge: to find new ways to motivate and inspire these children who do not innately know how to play. "We were hoping to create an outdoor classroom learning and adaptive play experience that would provide these youngsters with stimulation and enjoyment," Bob Ralls, president of the FJB, explained. What the Foundation soon discovered was that it was going to set precedence in creating a multi-sensory environment for children with unique needs. The first step involved collaboration among FJB staff, Landscape Architect Wayne Romanek, and Beth Reeves- Fortney, an early childhood design consultant. Also participating were designers from The Mattel Foundation, which supplied the bulk of the corporate funding. Funding was also provided by Home Depot, Bank of America, Community Development Block Grant/City of Los Angeles, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern CA, and Walt Disney Co. Foundation. The team observed the children, reviewed the limited research, talked with experts in the field, and conducted brainstorming sessions to explore design possibilities. Reeves-Fortney explained how the design criteria established by the team relate to an understanding of the children's unique needs and abilities. "Teachers described the three most important characteristics of the children they wanted the playground design to support - their difficulty in understanding cause and effect, difficulty in initiating and sustaining play and a tendency to easily become over-stimulated." Reeves-Fortney recommended that the Foundation contact Philip Vaughan, principal at Vertex Productions, to integrate these design concepts and to make the design a reality. She and myself, worked together on the design of Disney's groundbreaking "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" playground at the Disney MGM Studios in Orlando. At the time, Vaughan was a designer at the Disney think tank, Walt Disney Imagineering. That playground was the first that Disney had designed for any of their theme parks. The FJB Playground had to offer a clear sense of safety and predictability, with invitations to play through a variety of sensory modalities - texture and sound as well as light and color for partially sighted children. The teachers must be able to easily accompany children throughout the yard, and challenges graded to reduce frustration. Play events including interactive elements and activities are linked, or flow into one another to help children sustain play. Many places to relax have been placed throughout the yard so that children can be near activity events and more easily re-enter play after resting." Myself and Victor Martinez of Vertex Productions in Los Angeles employed many of the design elements they have used in creating attractions for theme parks. The first step was a design charette, to gather all the ideas that the Mattel designers and rest of the team had developed to date. Then the task fell to me, Fortney and the FJB staff to integrate those ideas and to fit them within a tight budget. We needed to develop a playground that would attract and accommodate these special children. Most of them have severely limited vision and that was a challenge in itself. Many of them also are either wheelchair-bound or otherwise physically or developmentally handicapped. We wanted to make sure that they could play effectively in their playground. In many ways we were shooting in the dark with what we thought might be attractive and stimulating to these kids since their ability to communicate is limited. Fortunately, the Foundation staff had a very open, collaborative and experimental attitude and was open to trying new things. Construction for the Mattel Play Yard began in early spring of 2000. What emerged over the next four months was a gallery of experiences, textures, sounds and colors that addresses the unique needs of the children at the Foundation while at the same time inviting them to explore new challenges. To create this experimental space, I used a variety of techniques more often found in theme park attraction design. These included cement plaster rockwork forms, use of sophisticated electronics, computer controlled inflatables, a variety of custom designed water play features and a theatrical lighting scheme. The children enter the playground by way of an adobe perimeter wall that encloses the play area. The wall's textured surface was created to envelop an existing metal fence. The new softer, more user friendly wall was enhanced by "found object artist" Nancy Kyes, who skillfully imbedded various discarded objects, including toys, auto parts, even cups and saucers from the Foundation's dining room. Using a unique rail rimmed with large multi-colored HDPE abacus beads, the children can "trail" their way from the residential hall around the perimeter to the entrance of the play yard. Once inside they find a soft, rubberized surface. Bright colors are incorporated into the surface to help partially sighted children orient the various play areas and pathways. The design team has used well designed, off-the-shelf equipment wherever possible to keep the construction costs down and to ensure the highest levels of safety. A prefabricated climbing structure from Landscape Structures has been adapted to merge with the rock-like perimeter wall. Access to the platform is offered via a sculpted low angle climbing element designed for the handicapped, as well as more traditional stairs. The safe, enclosed platform provides plenty of room for both children and their adult companions, a side-by-side slide to encourage social interaction, and a roller-slide for an added sensory element. A rock-wall climber designed by Jay Beckwith from Boldr was modified with unique touch-sensitive, sound-emitting hand grips, a computerized sound element engineered by John Biondo. When a child touches one of these handholds, it emits a unique sound, such as a cat's meow, a dog bark, a word of encouragement. These are intended to develop spatial understanding and to encourage exploration. Under the climber, there is a shaded tunnel with chasing lights to encourage exploration of three-dimensional space. Children or teachers at ground level or at the top of the climber can communicate with each other using built-in "talk tubes." The soothing sounds of flowing water invite the children into a protected area for water and sand play. A thin film of flowing water sheets down a 10' by 15' rock form wall imbedded with real sea shells, providing a cooling, intensely tactile exploration experience. A nearby water play table borders a ground-level sand play area. A raised stream bed made of rock formations affords access to the wheelchair-bound and empties into a tiny lagoon where the children can float toy boats, stand or dig. For quiet times, children and teachers can sit together on any one of a variety of rock-like benches set under trees, or on the wide seats of the Kompan Multi-Seesaw bouncer. Or they can choose to lay or crawl on a large, computerized undulating air bed that will rock them gently. Teachers use the remaining available open space for portable equipment to individualize therapeutic experiences. Swings are sited in a separate rubberized area that has protective boundaries to safely guide the children. A picnic area located near the entrance to the defined play area serves as a common hub, resting and eating area, and also as a place for community gatherings and children's parties. Romanek conveys the design group's hope that the play yard will inspire others to think creatively about motivating play and bringing a sense of adventure to children with special needs. "We are bringing to this unusual user group many experiences other kids have been enjoying," he said. This project involved a lot of designers and technicians, many who rarely work with the handicapped. We worked on the project right in the middle of an operating school. Everyone came away profoundly moved by the experience, and a little wiser and more determined to try to replicate this work in other areas. Our job was made much easier by a client with a really open attitude, who really wanted to push the envelope, to try new ideas, to develop play environments that might encourage independent functioning and exploration. I think the outcome was the creation of perhaps the most comprehensive multisensory play yard in the country. I think some of these ideas would apply well to playgrounds for the general population. CREDITS To create the multi-sensory play yard, the Foundation for the Junior Blind initially teamed with volunteer designers from Mattel, Inc. under the guidance of early childhood specialist Elizabeth Reeves-Fortney. Wayne Romanek represented Carter Romanek Landscape Architects Inc. The design team also included artist Nancy Kyes, engineer John Biondo and a host of movie industry specialists. The play yard was named after Mattel, Inc., who provided volunteer designers in the early phase of the project, as well as generous support from the Mattel Children's Foundation. Other companies and government agencies also provided support for the play yard, including: *Bank of America Foundation *Community Development Block Grant Division, Community Development Commission, County of Los Angeles, Second Supervisorial District, The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Supervisor *Home Depot *The Walt Disney Company Foundation *Los Angeles Times Fund *Ronald McDonald House. Philip Vaughan is the President of Vertex Productions Inc. hello

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October 20, 2019, 5:52 pm PDT

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