How one girl’s struggle helped change Anchorage’s playgrounds

Anna Boltz helped start a movement as a toddler. Now 11, she can see and use the results in a dozen new playgrounds all around Anchorage.

Anna has spina bifida, which makes it difficult to get around without a walker or wheelchair. In 2009, her mother, Leah Boltz, was griping with two other mothers about how the accessible playgrounds in Anchorage weren't really accessible to kids like theirs.

"We all went to the same physical therapist," Leah said. "We were all complaining about it and we decided to do something about."

Today, Anchorage may be near the top of cities installing inclusive playgrounds, facilities that go beyond the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act to pull in children of every ability and interest. They're colorful, creative and extremely popular with all kinds of kids.

"That's what I love about Alaska. Let's not sit around and complain about it. Let's get involved and make it work," Boltz said.

It didn't happen with bake sales and work parties — although that was the women's original plan. Large playgrounds can cost a million dollars.

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The idea took hold at a meeting of the Anchorage Park Foundation. The foundation and the municipality's Parks and Recreation Department were in the process of planning a playground at Cuddy Family Midtown Park.

After that successful project, completed in 2013, more followed. The voters have supported the work with bonds too.

Now five more inclusive playgrounds are under construction, said Beth Nordlund, director of the foundation. This fall, an elaborate indoor playground will be built within the Fairview Recreation Center.

So what was wrong with the old playgrounds?

For one thing, they were wearing out. Anchorage installed playgrounds during rapid growth years in the 1980s or in the 1990s, when another generation of moms pointed out widespread safety hazards that required removal of equipment.

Boltz helped designers recognize that in new playgrounds, ADA compliance wasn't good enough.

Anna Boltz said she couldn't use any of the supposedly accessible equipment at Huffman Elementary until, in fourth grade, she asked the principal to lower a swing for her.

"I couldn't even get on the swings," she said. "It was sad."

Recess was a quiet time when she would sit and talk with friends.

The wood chips or shredded rubber in the fall zones of playgrounds make it difficult for kids in wheelchairs. Until recently, Anna couldn't move at all in the rubber, which is also flammable and attracts vandals. The railroad ties surrounding those zones can be another barrier.

Inclusive playgrounds don't try to get around that problem; they eliminate it. The fall zone is flat to the ground, with padding poured in place or hidden underneath artificial turf.

That detail alone creates a whole different feel to a park, as Anna showed me on a Sunday morning at South Anchorage Sports Park.

The playground was already buzzing. It was an extremely inviting place.

In the center, a scary-high tower with a network of climbing ropes would be a challenge to a fit 12-year-old or even an adult. But the playground also has low-level toys that any boy or girl could use in a variety of ways. It's all integrated so everyone plays together.

I was pulled in by a cool set of gongs and bells at ground level. A toy like a front-end loader allowed Anna to dig in the sandbox without getting out of her wheelchair. A slide is built into a grassy hill with a ramp. On the way down, rollers speed children's bottoms along while vibrating them to the eyeballs.

Nordlund said these sensory toys are key to involving everyone. Most disabilities are not physical. Playground designers need to consider sensory or intellectual challenges. They are even including hiding places for children who need a respite from people, light and sound.

"What does it mean to include everyone in play?" Nordlund asked. "Do you remember playing with any children with disabilities? And what did you learn about life by doing that?"


The term "inclusive play" doesn't have a firm definition yet, so it is difficult to say how many communities are involved in the movement. But Nordlund said Anchorage appears to be a national leader.

Most communities that considered the issue at all built a single showplace playground, she said. Anchorage is on track to eventually transform all the public park playgrounds, with about a fifth of more than 80 completed or scheduled so far.

Each playground costs from under $100,000 to more than $1 million. The accessible fall zones increase the price tags slightly. Nordlund and the municipality have pieced together the money for each project from local bonds, state and federal grants, and private foundations.

But the ideas were as  important as the money. Leah and Anna traveled across the country to learn and to try out playgrounds. They visited a factory in Minneapolis. Anna even saw a secret workshop where playground toys are created.

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Nine years after it started, Anna is getting a bit old for this stuff. She was polite about showing me around the playground, but she is entering sixth grade and this didn't look like her normal Sunday morning hangout.

Her mother said that's OK. Anna has a baby sister now, Adeline, who is just barely old enough for Anna to put her on the equipment. Leah said inclusive playgrounds will soon allow Anna to take her sister to the park.

That inclusion reaches to grandparents with mobility issues too, and parents with disabilities, such as wounded veterans. Inclusive design pulls even parents without disabilities into the play area, Nordlund said.

By opening the playground to everyone, they mean everyone.

These playgrounds are bright and beautiful too, with unique imaginative features such as a polar bear or pirate ship.

Adding creativity and inclusion to our lives doesn't cost much but makes our days so much richer. It's a way everyone can improve Alaska.

As Leah Boltz said, "We want everybody to see the value of inclusivity in the community and incorporate that in whatever they're doing."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.