What makes a playground truly inclusive? It’s a loaded question and one that has many possible answers, but I think most will agree that a modern inclusive playground allows access to ALL the playspaces, while offering equipment suited to children of all needs, ages and abilities. Julia’s Junction playground in West Kelowna is the most impressive inclusive playground I’ve seen – and watching Julia and her friends play at this park gave me so many new insights into the future of inclusive play.
A first for West Kelowna
Julia’s Junction opened in Summer 2023. It’s the first fully inclusive playground in West Kelowna, BC, a city of about 45,000 people. It is the brainchild of the Grassmick family. Julia’s Mom, Melissa, took it upon herself to raise a whopping $900,000 for the playground – and she did it in just 15 months, a feat that is absolutely incredible!
This playground doesn’t look like every other inclusive playground and Melissa says that she’s had people ask her how the playground can be inclusive without ramps. Both Melissa, and Su Baker from Play Envy, the company behind the playground, point out that ramped structures allow access to only specific parts of playgrounds – and can take up a large footprint of a park, and a large part of the budget, often with very little play value or challenge in return. The ground-based play at Julia’s Junction allows children and caregivers with mobility issues to reach every part of the playground. It’s an environment that will also provide a challenge and more play value for kids like Julia – while also being inclusive to other children, including those with neurodiversity and visual impairments.
It starts with the surfacing – Julia’s Junction features pour-in-place rubber surfacing and artificial turf throughout the park. There are paved pathways to and from the parking lot, and the one ramp in the park offers directly onto the Aero Glider accessible glider.
The playground features an Accessible Whirl in-ground merry-go-round. Wheelchair users can also roll in, out and around features like the Unity Dome climber as well as the NEOS 360 Electronic Game System.
Equipment at transfer height
Further to this, several of the pieces of equipment are at wheelchair-transfer height so that users who can transfer out of their chairs can do so to be with their peers or challenge themselves in new ways. I saw Julia, and her friend Sadie, transfer from their chairs several times to pieces like the Cone Spinner merry-go-round, the Unity Teeter Tunnel (a giant teeter-totter that includes a tunnel), the Cruise Line (think zipline meets saucer swing) and the Saucer Swings. Julia’s mom says that the saucer swing is Julia’s favourite piece of equipment because of the independence and freedom it gives her.
Two pieces caught my eye. First, the Unity RockR. Julia’s friend Sadie transferred from her chair to the spring-mounted dish. (it has handles to assist with such a transfer) Sadie’s mom, a physiotherapist, joined her daughter and they worked through a series of Sadie’s core exercises together right there in the park! Moments before, other kids had been leaping off the bouncy platform and running across the park.
The Slide Aside
The second thing that caught my eye – and to me, the more remarkable – is the Slide Aside. It’s a slide with a base that widens and includes a handle. The slide curves slightly toward the staircase. Julia can park her wheelchair in the space between the slide and the staircase and transfer herself directly onto a platform. She can then “bum-scoot” up the slightly padded and springy risers to the top of that slide. When she slides down, the slide aside is set perfectly to allow her to transfer back to her chair.
The design of this circuit, exclusive to the playground that bears her name, means Julia can access the main structure, slide with her friends and get back into her chair independently. Talk about a way to build confidence! (Sadie also completed the same circuit, but instead of bum-scooting up the soft stairs, she was able to walk while supporting herself under both arms thanks to the narrow design of the fencing that flanks the risers. It’s also something she wouldn’t be able to do at a playground with double-wide, or even regular-width, ramps.)
Inclusion for everyone
The design of Julia’s Junction took into account more than those with mobility issues. Several considerations are in place for children on the Autism spectrum, one of which I hadn’t seen before. It’s a simple map of the park that highlights places where users can swing, slide, climb, spin and be calm. This pre-load board helps children understand the environment before entering the (fully fenced!) play space.
Sensory features are offered throughout the playground. These include sound effects and lights from the electronic NEOS 360 game; tactile features built into a variety of equipment (I loved the slider over corrugated metal – you can see a picture in the carousel below); and even role-playing options like the little car and house. Sliding, swinging, swaying and spinning are all offered in a variety of ways at this playground – but so are spaces to be quiet and calm, including the Cozy Cocoon spherical spinner, and the panels under the Mighty Descent slide that create a bit of a hideout.
Children who are blind or visually impaired can play at this playground more safely too. Fencing around the entire playground (it’s gated in multiple spots) is an important safety element. There is a Braille board as well as sensory tactile and sound features.
Adding more challenge
An inclusive playground doesn’t just remove barriers – it also raises the bar by adding new challenges for kids. Julia and her friend Sadie are able to be more physically active at this playground because there are several pieces of equipment that empower them to leave their chairs.
There are plenty of options for children who love risky play. They can scale post, climb to the tops of rope features and find new ways to use the obstacle courses. Check out the photos of Sadie and my daughter each using the obstacle course in a way that challenges them. Offering risky play and challenging options are also important ways that a great playground can be more inclusive!
Realizing a dream
Julia’s mom Melissa says she didn’t know what she was getting into when they began the process, and says the experience was everything from exciting to overwhelming at times, and finally surreal when the playground finally opened in July 2023.
“I didn’t want people to look at it and say ‘that’s the wheelchair playground’,” Melissa told me. “I wanted them to look at it and say “that’s the kick-ass playground!”
- Where: Westbank Centre Park, 2569 May Street, West Kelowna, BC
- Parking: This park has a dedicated parking lot. A bathroom building, water fountain and shaded picnic shelter are also on site.
- More info: on this playground HERE
This post was written in partnership with Play Envy, serving Alberta, B.C. and Yukon by creating inclusive spaces for fun and active living. I thank the team at Play Envy for trusting me to help tell this story.
Some of our favourite Play Envy playgrounds include: St. Edmund School and Thrive Elementary School playgrounds in Edmonton; Cornerstone Meadows Heath Park in Calgary; and Summerland Memorial Park in Summerland, BC. Learn more about how Play Envy is rethinking playground design HERE.