Seattle’s PlayGarden: Sowing the Seeds of Potential

Merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters, metal slides, monkey bars, and even tetherball is becoming a thing of the past. Broken bones, bruised foreheads and burnt booties have resulted in a call for new and improved playgrounds that not only take into account safety, but also capture a child’s attention.

Seattle’s Play Garden is just the latest garden-inspired playground in the trend towards building parks with less concrete and more creativity– with climbing structures with spongy recreational surfaces beneath, and expansive fields of green designed to connect developing and disabled youth with nature.

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Liz Bullard of Seattle’s PlayGarden admits she wasn’t the first to dream up this idea. After working as a speech pathologist for 20 years, she came across the Rusk Children’s Play Garden in New York City. She still remembers reading a garden design publication with a small feature that discussed changing the perception of therapy as ‘work’ into therapy as creative ‘play’.

An inclusive play garden is representative of something that we cannot emphasize enough: an improved community. Teaching kids the significance of planting a seed and tending to it as it grows can serve as a powerful metaphor throughout their life. But along with this notion, if we can plant the seed of inclusion– this idea that children of all abilities can play and interact– then we can quite confidently create the leaders of tomorrow.

“[Play Gardens] captured my imagination right off the bat. I went to visit Manhattan and it was clearly a super-fun space for kids to hang out,” Bullard told me. “I went to national conferences for children’s gardening and learned about some pretty inspirational spaces like the Spiral Garden in Toronto. I continued to research [and found out] there were gardens for children but there weren’t many geared towards children with disabilities,” she added. With the mission to promote the individual and social development of children while connecting them with nature, she formed the non-profit organization in 2002.

Abraham Bergman, a prominent pediatrician in Seattle, helped Bullard see that the PlayGarden was something that the city of Seattle should support. He posed that the Parks Department donate a piece of property. “The superintendent agreed and said it was [their] mission to serve all of its citizens and that it was not serving children with special needs,” Bullard continues. “We had to gain neighborhood support and be responsible for the parks maintenance. We agreed and pretty quickly identified Coleman Playground– we don’t take up the whole park, but we have one acre.”

Before the Coleman playground was transformed, it was full of busted concrete and scattered glass. A basketball backboard stood without a hoop and the neighborhood explained, to Bullard, the significance of it being repaired. “It wasn’t my first choice in [developing] the space but it turned out to be a very good thing,” she explained with emphasis. In addition to becoming a really nice basketball court for the public to use, little kids now learn how to ride bikes and operate their wheelchairs in the space.

Summer programs began in 2005, with temporary fences installed, a huge garden built, ADA porta-potties on site, and a handpicked staff ready and willing to play with the children. “60 kids signed up that first summer and we have been full ever-since,” said Bullard. As outreach and fundraising continued, so did the design and expansion of their PlayGarden.

Today, Children aged 4-12 attend summer camp at Seattle’s PlayGarden Monday through Thursday. Typically developing children, also known as children without disabilities, play with children with a spectrum of disabilities, including children that are deaf and those have impaired vision, down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. Brothers and sisters of children with disabilities meet friends that share their set of circumstances, as well. Friendships are forged and laughter is shared as they explore the nature that surrounds them, whether that’s investigating a butterfly garden planted to attract beneficial insects and butterflies or a farm area with chickens, ducks, and bunnies (there’s also a long kitchen garden with an accessible ramp alongside it).

“Everything in the PlayGarden is chosen to withstand lots of picking and trampling,” Bullard laughs. “It really is suppose to be a break from the routine of therapy, doctors appointments, and tutoring. This is time for them really just to play. After years of always evaluating a child and determining [their] difficulties and moving forward to create a program that addresses those deficits, [I’ve realized] you are risking a childhood without time to explore what it is that you really love. Often times these kids don’t know what they want to do. We let them be at loose ends for a while and sure enough, it’s magical to watch what happens. Last year weddings were a big thing. It was hilarious! I don’t even know how it got communicated from one child to the next…it’s like there’s some secret childhood network,” she laughs.

“Boys and girls would make bouquets of flowers from our garden and mud pie cake for their pretend wedding. They would get dressed up and throw rice. Boys were marrying boys, girls were marrying girls, and some kids were confused by that saying ‘what is gay marriage?’ It was a rich experience. Other times [the theme is] pirates and sometimes they’re busy building something, but it’s child-directed and child-focused. Our dilemma right now is that we fill up really fast and have a long waiting list. We would love to see other communities build a PlayGarden,” Bullard adds, perhaps foreshadowing the salience that this kind of idea could have in other communities outside of her own.

In 2010, the PlayGarden opened their doors to their first preschool class of children aged three to five. The preschool operates under the same concepts as the summer camp, continually opting for the children to spend their days outside if the weather permits. There are 15 kids per class and three teachers, a higher ratio than a typical preschool. This year, Bullard and her team will launch a capital campaign to finish the last of the development. This money will go towards funding an interactive kiosk (so that people can better understand what the PlayGarden is about), replacing fences with better latches for playground enclosure, installing better lighting, and towards beautification via steel dandelion sculptures that visitors will be able to spot from the street.

“It’s been said, ‘don’t open your children’s presents for them, let them discover on their own what they like’. If it’s picking up rocks and putting them in a bucket for an hour, then that’s what that is. If they want to dig a hole in the mud pit with their trucks and farm animals then they can. We try to be there to support them and provide opportunities but not get in the way,” Bullard says of the institution’s hands-off guidance strategy. “It’s possible to replicate this model of an all inclusive PlayGarden,” she insists, a message that seemingly implores other communities to follow in her stead. The possibility of new PlayGardens sprouting up across the country is a matter of personal ambition and priority, but it’s a prospect that is certainly possible, as Bullard continues to demonstrate. The seed has been planted, but it’s up to us to decide if we’d like to see it bloom.

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