09-18-19 | Feature

An Inclusive Playground

Civitan Smiles Park

by Diane Scanlan, Shane's Inspiration

In West Monroe, Louisiana, community outpouring over the tragic deaths of local children gave rise to Civitan Smiles Park; a 20,000-square-foot, $1 million-dollar project that was directed by the West Monroe Civitan Club (WMCC), which is a member of Civitan International, Inc., a global organization focused on aiding people with developmental disabilities. They relied on Shane's Inspiration, a non-profit organization dedicated to the establishment of inclusive playgrounds, to design the playground around a carnival theme.
The playground was designed by Shane's Inspiration - a non-profit organization specializing in inclusive playgrounds - and themed along the lines of a county fair with the objective to provide an exciting visual and tactile environment with active movement and skill challenges for cognitive learning opportunities and imaginative play.
The WMCC contributed $200,000 toward construction of the playground, which was sited within the 150-acre Kiroli Park; the space was granted to the organization by the city of West Monroe. The city also agreed to accept ownership and maintenance of the playground, and build it a fully accessible wood pavilion, which was named Benjamin's Shelter after a young local boy who died from a rare genetic disorder.
Stimulating and encouraging the development of new skills, but within scale with a child's size, was a key goal when selecting the play equipment. This is important, according to the designers, to build on a child's risk assessment such as learning to balance and deal with heights.
Themed activity panels include ones that allow for making music. Diverse age playground areas are set off by minimal barriers, such as a hardscape path, low fencing or landscaping. In this way, keeping an eye on kids of different ages is much easier.
Four life-sized, climbable circus animals made of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) are part of the custom elements at the playground. A carousel structure, big top carnival tents, a performance stage and a Ferris wheel are distributed thoughout.
Musical instruments grouped together provide another cognitive learning opportunity. Colored stamped concrete bands in a random fieldstone pattern not only add to the quirky character of the playground, they also are sensory seeking opportunities for children in wheelchairs.
The different play areas were designed to be used by 5 to 12-year-olds at one end of the age brackets, 6 to 23-months-old at the other end, and 2 to 5-year-olds, whose area includes this fantasy puppet theater.

An Inclusive Playground takes on far greater meaning when a community pulls together to embrace and honor the life of a child. Sadly, such a tragedy occurred multiple times in West Monroe, Louisiana, sparking the enormous community effort surrounding the birth of Civitan Smiles Park at Kiroli Park.

This 20,000-square-foot, $1 million dollar project was spearheaded by the West Monroe Civitan Club (WMCC), an affiliate of Civitan International, Inc., an organization of service clubs across the nation and around the world. A focus of theirs is aiding those with developmental disabilities. Benjamin Sirmon passed away at the age of three from a rare genetic disorder. His mother Hillary, a pediatric physical therapist, who had recently raised funds for a smaller inclusive community-built playground, and other families, with and without special needs children, rallied around the project, as did multiple large corporate donors and local service businesses who contributed materials and labor for the project.

For more than three decades the WMCC has sponsored the Ark-La-Miss Fair and used the proceeds of the fair to support worthy causes throughout northeast Louisiana. Every year the WMCC dedicates one day to persons with different abilities so they can attend at no charge. Junior Civitan from local high schools serving as "buddies," provide guidance and companionship. In turn, this experience gives the "buddies" the chance to reach beyond the disability barrier, giving children a hands-on opportunity to learn from their peers with different abilities.

Seeing the smiles on children's faces enjoying their day at the Fair left the WMCC dreaming of a place where all children and their families could experience that joy every day! This was the moment the WMCC named their park project... Smiles.

In March 2013 the WMCC agreed to spearhead the playground project and made an initial contribution of $200,000. West Monroe provided a location within Kiroli Park and agreed to construct a fully accessible pavilion to accompany the playground. It was named 'Benjamin's Shelter.' The city also agreed to accept ownership and maintenance of the playground once completed.

Playground Inspiration
Shane's Inspiration, a non-profit organization dedicated to the establishment of inclusive playgrounds across the country and overseas, designed the playground around a carnival theme, and will coordinate outreach and education through their social inclusion program, Together We Are Able, to help fulfill the park's mission...bringing all children together to play and learn!


Nestled amongst numerous pine groves, Kiroli Park already had an existing accessible restroom, abundant parking and clear access into the site. Civitan Smiles Park transforms a child's fantasy world into a fun-filled, visual, tactile, interactive day at the county fair.

Playground Theme
Thematic playgrounds spark a child's imagination...The Entry Circle establishes the carnival theme at Civitan Smiles Park. Each animal is named after a child from the community. Benjamin and Kirsten have passed. But Gabe and Ella Jayne are still with us. Each child is honored with a plaque adjacent to the donor wall. The fabricator used stainless steel that was precision cut using a state-of-the-art water jet. Benjamin Sirmon loved bears, so his family chose to name the bear 'Benjamin". There is also Clover the Elephant (for Kirsten), Duke the Lion (for Gabe) or Bleu the Seal (for Ella Jayne). They create a familiar gathering spot for children who have difficulty finding comfort in unfamiliar spaces...designing with a theme helps them gain confidence in new surroundings. And the existing site and budget allowed for clear age separation between play areas, reducing the chance of injury from older, more active kids.

One can navigate everywhere at Civitan Smiles Park since 100% of the site is on resilient surfacing. Therapeutic support devices can access every spot and a child can visibly differentiate one space from another due to the surfacing color changes and enhanced graphics. Wayfinding signage throughout the site help children identify where they are in the playground environment. Integral colored stamped concrete bands in a random fieldstone pattern, accent the walk.

Playground Areas
The animal circle, visible upon entry, is the central gathering point at the playground. The GFRC colorful circus animals, relief for the visually impaired, stand between 4-6' tall, each offering a tactile sensory environment as the textures change from smooth to rough. All children come to the playground wanting to make friends; furry and non-furry alike.

Civitan Smiles Park includes a 5-12 age area with multiple carnival tents providing optimal shade, a Ferris wheel, themed activity panels and inclusive opportunities for spinning, balancing, climbing, rocking, swinging and resistance push-pull. Equipment selection, location and type of surfacing are key to ensuring children with physical and sensory processing disorders have an opportunity to play. The sensory rollerslide promotes physical activity, vestibular and proprioceptive stimulation. The custom themed Ferris wheel supports children in being spontaneous and creative in both solitary and cooperative play, and is designed to present a greater degree of challenge, oftentimes requiring the use of hands to navigate up or across. It's critical that these types of elements be compatible with traffic flow from nearby components. A see-saw offers sensory calming from its controlled rhythmic movement. Swings force children to be aware of height...the sensation experienced with repetition can be both stimulating and relaxing. Both activities can be good soothers for sensory seeking kids.

I have not met a child who could pass on a carousel ride. Although ours does not rotate, custom horse panels encircle the base of the structure. Colorful music panels simulate the sounds of an authentic carousel. Mirrors under the roof are canted so a child could look up and observe...a favorite independent activity, used to gain confidence before entering the more active sections. A cozy dome provides a quiet calming node for kids on the Autism spectrum.

Typically, a project is not large enough for a separate infant to 23-months play area. Fortunately, we were able to design an area that could support toddlers in solitary play. At this stage, it's important to provide sensory panels at their eye-level. The chimes, bell, mirror and bead n' block panels all support child exploration in a safe, age-appropriate environment. A crawl tunnel and climb tower promote movement and group socialization.

Importance of Ground Level Play
Ground level play activity was selected as a means of providing sensory play for children and adults who have sensory processing disorders. On the 5-12 structure the decks are high enough to position play structure seats under them. This allows a younger child or a child over-stimulated on the structure to play at ground level, avoiding the high commotion above. The panels are low enough to the ground on both the 6-23 months and 2-5 age structures that they can be accessed on both sides. Music elements are also at ground level in a separate sound garden, away from high activity areas, offering a place for calming, or socialization.

Each of Shane's Inspiration's unique playground designs are guided by experts...the children with different abilities who use them and medical experts who work with those children every day. Our responsibility to the municipalities, donors, funding groups, and communities and parents we work with is to transform the space into a rich, thriving recreational resource that truly serves the community for which it is intended. Greek philosopher Plato said it best, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

About the Non-Profits in the Story Civitan International is a global organization based on fellowship, knowledge and service to others. Their mission is to "help wherever the need arises - from collecting food for a homeless shelter, to volunteering at their local retirement home, to building a playground for children with disabilities."

Shane's Inspiration honors Shane Williams who was born with spinal muscular atrophy and passed away shortly after. His parents' efforts helped create the first Universally Accessible Playground in California in 2000, which led to 65 playgrounds worldwide, with another 75 in development.

Sign up for
LAWeekly newsletter. Get exclusive content today.