116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District is working toward providing inclusive playgrounds for students of all abilities and needs at its schools.
The revamped playgrounds will aid children’s development and allow people in wheelchairs or with other mobility challenges to reach more play structures, benches and picnic tables.
“Modern playgrounds are designed to help children develop important motor, social and emotional skills as well as promote physical fitness,” said Ben Grimm, grounds manager for the Iowa City Community School District. “They are no longer installed strictly for recreation or enjoyment. If designed correctly, playgrounds will help students’ development of new skills while playing with their peers.”
A settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in spring 2020 says the district will make all playgrounds readily accessible to people with disabilities by Jan. 1, 2023.
The agreement ended an investigation that started in 2017, when several Iowa City families complained new elementary school playgrounds didn't meet updated standards.
Grimm said all playgrounds now are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. But the district still has a couple of playgrounds that are under construction or need equipment ordered before being able to provide proof of compliance with the Department of Justice agreement.
The district’s goal to create universal playgrounds to aid all kids’ development, which started in 2019, goes beyond just complying with the ADA, Grimm noted.
Before 2014, playgrounds were not being upgraded. Around 70 percent of the equipment was within three to five years of the end of its life cycle.
Iowa City schools at that time relied on Parent/Teacher Organizations to fund playground upgrades. This created inequity across the district, with some Parent/Teacher Organizations putting as little as zero and as much as $50,000 toward playground upgrades, Grimm said.
In 2014, the district began to set aside funds from the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy for playground upgrades. The Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, or PPEL, is an annual property tax levy to maintain school buildings, complete site improvements and purchase school equipment.
Since 2014, each of the district’s 21 elementary schools has had some playground work done. Between three and five school playgrounds are updated each year for about $500,000 a year, Grimm said.
The oldest equipment decommissioned by the district was more than 42 years old, Grimm said. The current oldest equipment is 24 years old. New equipment will have a 22- to 25-year life span.
How upgrades happen
Projects begin with a playground design committee made up of Grimm, the school’s principal, teachers — including someone with a special needs background — and community members.
A third-party engineering firm makes sure the district meets specifications for accessible routes, keeping slopes under 2 percent and creating areas where students can transfer out of a wheelchair without the wheelchair tipping over, Grimm said.
Students also get a say in what their playground could look like. Two final playground design options are posted in the school for students to vote on.
Playgrounds often include horizontal climbing walls, areas for students to draw with sidewalk chalk, outdoor music instruments and rubber fall zones. The biggest difference in modern playgrounds is the removal of stairs, ladders and platforms, Grimm said.
It takes about a year to create a new playground from start to finish, with landscape architects, civil engineers, equipment designers and safety inspectors involved in the process.
Before the pandemic started in March 2020, Grimm said it would take only eight to 12 weeks to get playground equipment. Now, supply chain delays mean equipment takes closer to nine months or more to arrive, Grimm said.
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