Playtime at Harper’s Playground
Updated: Aug 30
Summer is a great time for play. There are even articles by psychologists attesting to play’s mental benefits—a Psychology Today article says that “Free play is a natural part of development for both humans and animals.
In humans, it is especially critical for children, as it is thought to bolster their social and emotional growth and provide them a means to learn as they explore the world. For both children and adults, play can be used as a reward, an educational tool, or a means to motivate someone to complete necessary tasks. Studies show that children who are given short play breaks during their days at school return to the classroom with more focus and increased ability to pay attention and learn. Playing, especially when unstructured, stimulates mental flexibility and creativity.” As one can imagine, lack of play can be harmful to a person’s development; “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and all that. As of 2012, all municipal playgrounds are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. These ADA-compliant playgrounds incorporate “ramps and/or paved, barrier-free travel routes … a range of accessible play options; and … an appropriate surface beneath all accessible equipment.” (References sited below)
But is this the best option?
Harper Goldberg was born with Emanuel Syndrome, and as a result the doctor told her parents Cody and April that “you should expect her to never walk, nor talk in her lifetime.” Although hit hard by that assessment, Cody says, “in the weeks and months that followed, there was a very specific moment in time where I made a conscious decision to try to find a way to change the world for her, rather than to worry about what she was going to be able to do or not. And that manifested in Harper’s Playground, when we entered the typical playground and saw the problem, and my wife suggested we should do something about it.
“I knew then and there, like lightning bolts, that was it. That was the way.”
“I knew then and there, like lightning bolts, that was it. That was the way.”-Cody Goldberg
Harper’s Playgrounds are built around being three types of inviting: physically, socially, and emotionally. Designs vary from place to place, but one color you’ll see at any Harper’s Playground is green. Their heavy use of nature environs attracts people of any age or ability status; they look like plazas, not technicolor playgrounds that might give off a “this is kid stuff” vibe. At the typical playground, Harper and kids like her who relied on assistive walking devices couldn’t get to things like play structures or slides; if someone’s hands or arms didn’t work perfectly, they couldn’t use the swings. At Harper’s Playground, in contrast, there are plenty of smooth concrete walkways so that people who need wheels can get everywhere easily, and slopes are gentle rather than steep to limit danger. The seating areas are circular so that people can talk face-to-face, and there are many “flexible-use spaces” that can serve multiple functions. The swings have comfortable restraints to assist users who aren’t able to hold onto the chains or ropes the swing is suspended from, and Harper’s Playground pioneered the merry-go-round-like Omni Spinner, a roughly circular polyethylene ride that has speed-controlling brakes and transfer points for walkers or wheelchairs. Even if a piece of equipment isn’t accessible (such as monkey bars), the smooth paths allow wheel-users to “walk and talk” with any able-bodied friends using it.
When asked about the three “inviting's, Cody says, “The reason all of those design elements came to be in our first project was because I was able to be part of the design team and ask really important questions on behalf of my daughter Harper. I wanted the space to be all of those things for her, even though I hadn’t really articulated them in that way. I knew I wanted her to be able to get everywhere, to do as much as possible, to feel like she was welcomed wherever she was there, and it was going to be a beautiful experience.”
His Board of Directors pushed him “to actually articulate what it is that specifically makes Harper’s Playground unique and different. And so I studied it … for years [and] that’s how I came up with those three levels of inviting [socially, environmentally, and emotionally] as a way to describe what I was observing and feeling when I was there, and [the three levels partially came from] what I had remembered in the design process for what I had wanted to see happen. It’s very gratifying to know that being a good designer is far more a function of having empathy for the people that are going to use the space or use the thing. Good designers have to have empathy, not necessarily some sort of talent, and I didn’t know that about design until years later. In fact, I think I told somebody, ‘I think I’m a decent playground designer, because I have so much empathy for my daughter Harper.’ They told me. ‘Yeah, that’s what design is, it’s empathy.’ So that was a fun, humbling thing, to think I discovered something, and they’re like ‘Yeah, that’s design 101. Welcome to the party.’”
“Yeah, that’s what design is, it’s empathy.”-Unknown
The Harper’s Playground project has touched many people’s lives. Harper’s sister Landon wants to take over her dad’s business someday, and Cody says that April’s been supportive and tolerant of his “obsession” with inclusive design.
A member of the Harper’s Playground Board of Directors, Christy Jackson, has a daughter, June, whose story is pretty similar to Harper’s. Born with cerebral palsy and polymicrogyria, June wasn’t able to play at the same playgrounds as her able-bodied siblings. Christy says that “after having a disabled daughter, it became very apparent that playgrounds aren't typically inclusive. They have a ramp that you can get down, but you can’t roll wheels on barkdust. You [can’t get a] wheelchair onto the play structure. To me it was really important, as a parent to a child with complex needs, to allow her to go play and be inclusive with not only other children, but her siblings as well.”
“It was really important as a parent to a child with complex needs, to allow her to go play and be inclusive with not only other children, but her siblings as well.”-Christy Jackson
Inspired by her daughter’s experiences, Christy’s working on Just Like You, a children’s book that hopes to help parents figure out what to say when their able-bodied children see kids like June and ask “what’s wrong with her?” Christy says that “children like June are just like everybody else, they want to experience all of the same things, they enjoy having fun, going on vacation, taking a bath, doing all of these fun activities … it might look a little different, but that’s okay.”
She says that, “working with Harper’s Playground has been phenomenal. Harper’s Playground’s basically just a really great sounding board for hearing out other parents and community members on how we should be better about equity and inclusion. All human beings should have a right to do the same activity, regardless of what it is. So, for us, having the ability to go to a playground where I know that all three of my children can play together means the world to me, and I know that it means the world to a lot of other families.”
But what does the future hold for Cody, Christy, their kids, and everyone at Harper’s Playground? Christy’s focusing on her book, and Cody has big plans:
Global domination of play-spaces.
He wants every playground to be an inclusive space where people of all ages, ability statuses, etc. can play together. He also hopes to go out of business because one day Harper’s Playground is the standard model and there’s no need for a nonprofit to push for it.
“Having the ability to go to a playground where I know that all three of my children can play together means the world to me, and I know that it means the world to a lot of other families.”-Christy Jackson
While Cody works toward global domination, there’s something you can do, too. Why not check out playgrounds in your area to see if they fit the Harper’s Playground model and the three “invitings”? If they do, great! If they don’t, consider organizing community efforts to change that.
If you’d like a copy of Christy’s book, you can buy copies at this year’s Harper’s Summer Soiree charity dinner. All proceeds from book sales will go to supporting Marshall Park, an inclusive playground in Vancouver, Washington. Afterwards, copies can be bought online. In the meantime, you can keep up to date by following Christy on instagram @ChristyAJackson, or check out her website at www.christyjacksonauthor.com.