Equaling the Playing Field
Park designers answered children's requests for a water feature Ñ and doctors' concerns that casts and wheelchairs would get wet Ñ by creating a dragon that emits mist. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital's New Playground Is Designed for Disabled Children, But Everyone Is Welcome

by Anna Scott

Mary Schmitz bounds down a sloped, padded ramp, laughing like a kid as electronic tones signal the impact of her feet touching the ground.

Schmitz, who is president of the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital Foundation, clearly delights in showing off the facility's recently opened, nearly $1 million playground.

Though the park is designed to accommodate disabled children, it is also meant to entice able-bodied kids - or adults - to play, as 61-year-old Schmitz demonstrated on a recent afternoon. It also gives hospital patients a chance to interact with other children from the neighborhood.

Located on the Orthopaedic Hospital campus at 2400 S. Flower St., the playground is open to patients and the general public seven days a week, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., thanks to an agreement with the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

"Here, children with disabilities have a place where they're not confronted with sand or wood chips," said Schmitz, "and the child without a disability learns how to deal with a child in a wheelchair."

The playground also fosters a link between the hospital and the surrounding neighborhood, said Orthopaedic Hospital CEO and Medical Director James Luck. "We really feel a commitment to Downtown, and we look for ways to expand that commitment to the community," he said. "The playground was one way."

Luck added, "I think this playground is an expansion of our core mission to provide care to children with crippling illnesses, regardless of financial status."

Engaging the Senses

Opened just north of USC in 1922, Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital treats more children with crippling disorders than any other orthopedic facility in the country, counting more than 55,000 outpatient visits annually.

The hospital's new play facility, formally named the Everychild Universally Accessible Playground, opened on March 1. It was primarily funded by a $925,000 grant from the nonprofit Everychild Foundation. Comprised of 225 L.A. women who contribute $5,000 annually, Everychild selects one project to fund each year.

"We had this land and we wanted to do something for the community," Schmitz said of the inspiration for the playground. "This just seemed like a perfect idea."

The nearly half-acre play area is filled with bright yellow, green and red slides, bridges and swings, all carefully designed to work for children with wheelchairs, leg braces, crutches or other challenges.

The foam-covered slope that Schmitz demonstrated is the first thing to greet visitors. Designed to give kids using wheelchairs a chance to roll down a hill unfettered, the ramp is enclosed by low walls embedded with speakers, which release musical notes as users descend. The feature was designed with cerebral palsy patients in mind, said Schmitz.

"They never get to feel their bodies in motion," explained Schmitz. "This gives them new opportunities to feel their bodies."

The main play area is divided into a section for kids ages 2 to 5, with simple slides and bucket swings, and an area for kids 5 and up, with more challenging features - such as the "wiggle bridge," a shaky crossing with sides to grab for balance - and larger swings with extra back support.

The entire surface of the playground is foam-covered to soften landings. Stations throughout the park offer hand-manipulation challenges, such as a color-matching game with vertical rows of rolling brown and white cylinders. Overall, there is a heavy emphasis on engaging the five senses.

In the small garden sprouting along the playground's edge, for example, "Everything is chosen for feel and smell," said Schmidt, reaching out to touch a green plant with soft, fuzzy petals.

Virginia Hatley, director of design for the Van Nuys-based nonprofit Shane's Inspiration, which designed the playground, said sensory features are especially important for kids with autism or learning disabilities, but are also beneficial for all children.

"Our mission is to break down bias through play," she said.

Bridging a Gap

Designing the Orthopaedic Hospital playground was a collaborative effort that involved doctors, therapists, patients and community members. Much of what exists now is the result of teamwork.

For example, the tall, skinny red dragon curving out of the ground, which sprays park-goers with a mist of cool water at the push of a button, came about thanks to kids' clamoring for a water element. When doctors expressed concern about casts and electric wheelchairs getting wet, designers engineered the misting idea.

Many of the playground's elements, while planned to serve disabled children, would blend into any park. The ample landscaping along the perimeter provides shade for children on medications that render them particularly sensitive to sunlight. Finding simple and universally enjoyable features that also address medical needs was part of the goal.

"If you make it just for disabled children," said Hatley, "it won't be fun and exciting for all kids. We work extra hard to find unique and fun features."

On a recent afternoon, teenagers from the Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School next door seemed to have plenty of fun as they pushed each other on the swings and found relief from the day's scorching heat under the misting dragon.

Though the day's therapy sessions for young hospital patients had ended hours earlier, Schmitz said the playground has also been a place for all children to mingle. Last month, she recalled, students from Delevan Drive Elementary School visited the playground, where they were paired with disabled patients for a play session.

"At the end of the day," said Schmitz, the students realized, "those kids are just like us."

After less than three months, the Orthopaedic Hospital playground has already attracted visits from parks officials and designers from as far away as Washington, D.C. Schmitz said she expects the park to serve as a model, and hopes for more visits from local stakeholders as well.

"Even if it's unusual for them to come to a hospital campus," she said, "we want to invite the community."

Contact Anna Scott at anna@downtownnews.com.

page 41, 6/9/2008

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