(circa July, 2011)
Taylor’s Dream is the latest playground built by the Fort Wayne, Indiana Parks and Recreation Department.
It boasts a vibrant splash pad, scalable dinosaur bones, and an interactive light and sound game, as well as playground staples such as swings and slides. Though those things may be unique, the defining characteristic of Taylor’s Dream is its standing as a Boundless Playground. A Boundless Playground certification – which is awarded by Boundless Playgrounds, Inc. – signifies that a playground is able to be fully-utilized by disabled and able-bodied individuals alike. Taylor’s Dream is the first playground of its kind in Indiana.
A space with a lot to offer, it’s unsurprising that it took a lot to make it happen.
The idea for Taylor’s Dream first formed in the mind of then-11-year-old Taylor Reuille back in 2008. Tired of seeing kids with disabilities not be able to play alongside their able-bodied friends, Reuille decided to do something about it.
“Taylor, which is quite an impressive move for a young girl at the time, actually sent a letter not only to the mayor of Fort Wayne, she sent a letter to the governor’s office,” recalls Al Moll, the Director of Parks and Recreation in Fort Wayne. “That letter got transferred to the Park Director’s office and (we were) questioning whether we could get engaged in this process."
“Well, it was an easy decision to get involved. But at that time (we) had no idea what it was going to cost, had no idea where we would place it.”
Moll and the Parks Department settled on Kreager Park, located on the city’s east side, as the site for the playground. With an endowment already in place at Kreager and a desire to improve the pre-existing playground, it was an easy choice.
Tasks like deducing how much the playground would cost and then raising the money to build it, however, weren’t as easy. Early estimates projected the playground would cost around $600,000. But it wasn’t long before those estimates went up.
“Did some forecasting, did some more costing out, did some planning with the kids, and all of a sudden, it was a million and two,” Moll said. “But we were still going to take it on; just knew it was going to take a little longer.”
The endowment in place at Kreager helped get the project off the ground, enabling the Parks Department to commit $250,000 out of the gate. But before pursuing fundraising publically, Moll said that he wanted to raise at least 40 percent of the entire cost of the playground. That way, once the fundraising process commenced, it would be easier for people to open up their checkbooks, as the finish line for the fundraising process would already be in-sight, inspiring confidence that the project would, indeed, happen.
“We didn’t officially kick off the campaign until late 2008,” Moll said. “During that interim we were able to shore up some major foundation support along with the Kreager foundation and then when we kicked it off. Taylor on her own, which is incredible, had raised over $10,000 herself, which for a child was just unbelievable …"
“We had hoped to get (the playground) done by 2010, (but with) the economic climate we just couldn’t raise the money in time. So, it delayed it about six months, but as it turned out we raised the money – in fact, we raised more than we needed.”
A groundbreaking ceremony was held on September 30, 2010, with Reuille, Moll, and Mayor of Fort Wayne, Tom Henry, in attendance.
Several displays at the event featured illustrations of what Taylor’s Dream would look like. Graduate City Landscape Architect Alec Johnson is the one credited with designing Taylor’s Dream, but he’s quick to point out the collaborative nature of his work.
“All of what I do is collaborative. It’s all teamwork,” Johnson said. “From the beginning of this project, specifically, we … basically just had a design party at the conservatory and we invited kids – kids that had physical disabilities and kids that didn’t – all together, and we just put out giant sheets of paper and had all kinds of catalogues of playground equipment and markers and just put them in groups and said: ‘What would you like to see with this playground?’ They drew it, they pasted pictures to it, and then they talked about it afterwards.”
Children’s opinions were far from the only ones solicited, though, as the opinions of adults with disabilities were sought, too. One of the adults was Sherry Woodman, 50, who has been wheelchair-bound her entire life.
“My kids were involved in the initial meeting for design and I work at Turnstone as a sub teacher and a volunteer, so I’ve seen the whole process and we’ve been to the fundraisers and the press conferences and stuff and so I’ve known about (Taylor’s Dream) and been really excited about it from Day One,” Woodman said. “I remember before that initial meeting we sat down at the dinner table and my kids were like, 'Well, mom, if you could’ve had a playground when you were little, what kind of things would you have liked to have seen?' We actually talked about (how) it’d be neat for a wheelchair to be able to wheel right into a swing and we were talking about different things.”
Additionally, Johnson and the Parks Department sought guidance from local groups that serve the disabled population, such as Turnstone – which services children and adults with physical disabilities – and the League of the Blind and Disabled.
“As we were designing the park, we’d bring them in at a certain point right at the beginning and say: 'Here’s our design so far, would you give us your input?' Just things that we may not consider on a normal project,” Johnson said.
“It was great to work with those folks. And then our in-house staff, the team at the Parks Department, we spent countless hours just designing and redesigning and so I can’t, in any way, say that this is my design,” Johnson said. “This is the entire staff, this is the community, this is everybody’s design, and I was sort of tasked with making sure that it happened and that it looked good in the end.”
One of the defining features of the playground is its organization into three distinct areas, located around the splash pad, each offering a different play experience. Referred to as “pods,” the Alpha Pod features basic playground equipment and swings and is geared toward younger children, in addition to swings, the Beta Pod features the aforementioned dinosaur bones and the interactive light and sound game, known as a NEOS, and the Gamma Pod features an extensive play structure replete with slides and ramps and is geared toward older children.
“The original design wasn’t exactly like this, it wasn’t pods,” Johnson said. “We had all the same elements, but the idea behind the pods is that we can expand, the design doesn’t get clunky and it’s not like it’s complete right now … if the desire and the money and the funding is there to grow this park, then we can do that.”
Other choices Johnson made on the playground were in service of attaining a Boundless certification. Among those choices was Johnson’s choice to include textured panels in the design of the playground so the blind can be engaged through touch. Additionally, in the landscaping, Johnson included grasses that make sound in the wind and plants that smell when their leaves are rubbed. No matter what senses one has, the playground is guaranteed to engage one of them.
Taylor’s Dream is also ADA accessible and compliant and instead of using mulch to surround the equipment, which can often be difficult for people in wheelchairs to traverse, navigation-friendly astro turf was used instead.
Taylor’s Dream was completed in June. Its grand opening was June 10. It was an emotional day for many, including Karen Rodenbeck, who has two daughters – one with cerebral palsy – and she termed the experience of laying eyes on the playground for the first time as “spectacular.”
“We got there early; I pulled the kids out of school early so we could get there. And to see cars … double-parked all the way out to the road and they were using shuttle buses to bring people up, it was just amazing,” Rodenbeck said.
“It literally is in our backyard. We’re only a mile and a half from it. We did not go over there the whole time from groundbreaking on because I didn’t want to know what it looked like, I wanted to be surprised. We got to see some of the drawings of what it was going to look like but it turned out so much better than we could have ever imagined.”
Woodman was there for the grand opening, too.
“When I first went out there, I mean, nothing can really prepare you for what it’s like to see something like that,” Woodman said. “The first thing I did see was the aero swing and I was like, 'What is that?' Because I didn’t realize that it was exactly what I had talked about and I had said, 'Oh, that’s really neat! You can just wheel it right up in there.'”
“I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t even know I was going to do this, but I just started crying,” Woodman said. “And then people from the Parks and Rec. were walking around and were like, ‘Are you alright?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine! I’m just so happy to know that there’s going to be a place where kids with disabilities can play right alongside their peers and not feel any different.’”
In the end, large crowds have ensured that Taylor’s Dream’s first summer of operation was a successful one.
“It’s a good thing, good ending, it’s a story that we’re proud of and it’s something that I was just honored and privileged to even be part of … and I’d do ten more if we could,” said Moll.
UPDATE: In 2015, Taylor's Dream Boundless Playground was voted #21 of The Top 50 Playgrounds in America by Early Childhood Education Zone.
(Photos and Video by Tony Frantz)