ON A PLEASANT Sunday afternoon in Potomac, energetic kids storm a castle, guard a fort, capture a pirate ship and even play in the street -- all under the watchful eyes of approving parents.
At Hadley's Playground at Falls Road Local Park, imaginations run as rampant as most of the children romping around on the big, colorful equipment. But even youngsters who can't run can enjoy the themed play areas, all of which include ramps and other features designed to accommodate wheelchairs and strollers.
The new Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission facility, described on the entry sign as "a place for all kids to play together," resulted from a five-year labor of love by local mother Shelley Kramm, whose 7-year-old daughter, Hadley, has cerebral palsy. Kramm grew frustrated trying to find a playground that both Hadley and her sister, Sarah, now 11, could enjoy. At most parks, Kramm had difficulty negotiating Hadley's wheelchair over wood chips and around barriers.
"Then, after we got on the playground, there wasn't anything for her to do," Kramm recalls. Hadley usually ended up sitting in her wheelchair off to the side, waving to her sister as Sarah ran around having fun.
"It was a pathetic sight," Kramm says.
An interior designer who minored in landscape architecture, Kramm envisioned a playground where able-bodied and disabled children could interact. She put her dream on paper, discussed the design's feasibility with several play equipment companies, then approached the park and planning commission. The commission approved the playground as a replacement for the aging equipment at Falls Road Local Park, and Kramm formed a non-profit organization to raise the necessary funds. Landscape architecture firm Grace E. Fielder and Associates of Laurel donated its services, including fine-tuning Kramm's plans. The project, which cost more than $1 million to implement, also benefited from corporate and private donations, as well as grants awarded by the Montgomery County government and, through Del. Mark K. Shriver's efforts, the Maryland General Assembly.
Built by Triple J Construction of Rockville, the one-acre playground opened in June. It's the largest, most accessible facility of its type in the county, and one of the few totally accessible playgrounds in the D.C. area. The park includes six play zones: a frontier-style setup, a castle, a pirate ship, a transportation area and two sections containing upper-body development activities like monkey bars. Much of the equipment, created by Little Tykes, resembles giant versions of the company's familiar toys and backyard play sets. Beneath the entire playground, rubberized material constructed from recycled tires forms smooth, springy "safety surfacing" that accommodates wheels and protects tumbling children.
"The floor is wonderful here. If they fall, you don't have to worry about them getting hurt," says Rita Morales, as daughters Amanda, 4, and Patricia, 6, scamper about the pirate-ship area on a recent Sunday. They especially enjoy navigating a wall made of tautly pulled, crisscrossed red ropes. Nearby, kids climb aboard the big, brown ship and grab a steering wheel, peek through a periscope and turn a crank to set gears in motion. Youngsters ride bouncy whales in the "water" -- a blue surface that surrounds the vessel.
On this busy afternoon, dozens of able-bodied children and adults fill the playground. The wide ramps designed to enable wheelchair-bound visitors to play on the equipment also come in handy for stroller-pushing parents like Sandy Nesbit, who glides 9-month-old daughter Caroline up a ramp and into the castle in the center of the playground. They pause to admire the infant's reflection in a mirrored panel and to look at rotating cylinders that create funny, mixed-up animal pictures. Then they stroll down another ramp and follow the path toward the pirate ship.
"I tried to think of everything," Kramm says of designing the play areas, which also incorporate elements geared toward autistic and sight-impaired visitors. Small, reflective signs bearing drawings and corresponding explanations help children with speech and communication problems use the equipment. The labels identify such features as bridges, windows and ladders. Sight-impaired children can trace continents on a tactile globe and read Braille on a panel that also shows alphabet letters and their sign language counterparts.
The playground's most popular feature, judging from the proliferation of shiny tricycles and miniature bicycles, is its two-lane "road" that loops around the various play areas. Featuring the same cushy surface as the rest of the playground, and resembling a black-topped street, the winding path proves ideally suited to youngsters just getting the hang of pedal pushing.
Kramm says that kids aren't the only visitors who take advantage of the park's special features.
"Parents with disabilities can get up on the equipment and play with their children," she says.
Kramm hasn't forgotten her original purpose in spearheading the project: Her children finally have a place where both can play. Hadley especially loves the high-backed red swing, while Sarah enjoys the track ride. But the girls also play together, Hadley in her wheelchair, with her sister by her side.
HADLEY'S PLAYGROUND at Falls Road Local Park -- 12600 Falls Rd., Potomac. 301/424-2112. The park is open during daylight hours. Shoes with cleats are not permitted.
Most local jurisdictions gradually are replacing old playgrounds with new equipment that includes such features such as ramps and wheelchair transfer points. Here are some of the area's most accessible playgrounds, generally open during daylight hours.
JOY EVANS Therapeutic Recreation Center Playground -- 555 L St. SE. 202/727-6553. This wheelchair- accessible playground focuses on upper-body developmental activities and includes a toddler area. People using apparatuses like crutches also can get around here. For information about other accessible playground facilities in the city, contact the District of Columbia Department of Recreation and Parks communications office at 202/673-7660.
MARYLAND-NATIONAL CAPITAL PARK AND PLANNING Commission -- M-NCPPC parks are gradually adding such features as high-backed swings and rubberized surfaces as aging playgrounds undergo renovation. In Montgomery County, playgrounds with wheelchair accessible equipment include Edgewood Neighborhood Park, 13900 Robey Rd., Fairland; Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Park, 1100 Jackson Rd., White Oak; Mill Creek Towne Local Park, 17401 Shady Grove Rd., Gaithersburg; and Wheaton Regional Park, 2000 Shorefield Rd., Wheaton. Call 301/495-2503 for information about these and other accessible playgrounds.
In Prince George's County, R.M. Watkins Regional Park, 301 Watkins Park Dr. (Route 193), Upper Marlboro, last year underwent an extensive renovation that includes such features as a rubberized play surface, wheelchair transfer platforms and a swing that accommodates a wheelchair. Call 301/699-2407 for information about this and other Prince George's County playgrounds with accessible features.
OPPORTUNITY PARK -- Allen Pond Park, 3330 Northview Dr., Bowie. 301/262-6200. Operated by the city of Bowie, this fully accessible play area features equipment for tots and older children. A nature trail includes recorded messages about birds and other wildlife.
WOODLEY GARDENS PARK -- 900 Nelson St., Rockville. 301/309-3030. This is the most accessible of the city of Rockville's many parks. Two other parks will become more accessible in 2000: Grandin Park at 704 Grandin Ave. and Twinbrook Park at 12851 Twinbrook Pkwy.
ALEXANDRIA DEPARTMENT of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities -- 1108 Jefferson St., Alexandria. 703/838-4343. The city boasts two parks with accessible playgrounds: Chinquapin Park at 3210 King St. and Montgomery Park at North Royal and Montgomery streets.
ARLINGTON COUNTY Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources -- 2100 Clarendon Blvd., Suite 414, Arlington. 703/228-6525. The county may build a fully accessible playground in the next three to five years, but in the meantime, it offers accessible features at most of its playgrounds, including the following: Bon Air Park at 850 N. Lexington St., Chestnut Hills at 27th Street North and North Harrison Street, Douglas Park at 1718 S. Quincy St., Glencarlyn Park at 301 S. Harrison St., Nellie Custis Park at 701 S. 24th St., Slater Park at 1837 Culpeper St. and Thomas Jefferson Community Center at 3501 Second St. South.
SOUTH RUN DISTRICT PARK -- 7550 Reservation Dr., Springfield. 703/866-0566. This Fairfax County Park Authority playground, built in 1993, features a rubberized surface, vinyl-coated equipment, ramps and wheelchair transfer points. For information about other accessible sites, call the Access Helpline at 703/324-8563.
PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY Park Authority -- 14420 Bristow Rd., Manassas. 703/792-7062 or 703/792-7275, Ext. 140. About 60 percent of the county's playgrounds have rubberized flooring or engineered wood carpet to accommodate wheelchairs. John Jenkins Park, 13499 Hillendale Dr., Dale City, has a wheelchair swing. Other parks with highly accessible playgrounds include Andrew Leitch Park, 5301 Dale Blvd., Dale City; Occoquan Park at 12700 Poplar Lane, Woodbridge; and Veteran's Memorial Park, 14300 Featherstone Rd., Woodbridge.