Park With Heart
By Leana Conway, Woodstock Resident
Neighborhood parks are the heart of any community. Places to play outdoors are a good part of the answer to the problems of obesity, depression, anxiety, and isolation. The new and unusual Downtown Playground is already popular with Woodstock’s younger generation. It not only fits the environment; it also provides accessibility to all. The kids just know it’s fun, but a great deal of thought and research went into its layout and elements.Completed this summer, the playground incorporates natural elements and textures of the landscape, with climbing mounds and tunnels that lure children into playing and exploring. The ADA-accessible ramp and boardwalk lead to a play area that allows children with physical challenges to enjoy the park and engage with music and building pieces. Hammocks and a twenty-foot-tall jungle gym lure children to climb, play, and interact with the structure in various ways.
Brian Stockton, director of Economic Development Woodstock City, explains the inception of the park on the corner of Elm and Market streets. “The mayor and the City Council prioritized the park for design and funding in response to overwhelming requests from the public, whose comments were also considered in the process. The location lent itself to be designed as a natural playground.” The funds for the project came from SPLOST money and Parks and Recreation Impact Fee funds.
The natural playground incorporates elements not typical of playground structures. Organic materials such as earth, stones, and wood give the park the feel of a natural forest. Its accessible play areas allow people with special needs to use the park features while they encourage play among children with different abilities. Elements such as building pieces, tunnels, and music makers also provide a sensory-rich environment that engages children and promotes inclusion. Music creates a common language for nonverbal children and children with cognitive disabilities.
“Our special-needs students love the downtown park,” Anna Angalet reports. She is the special-needs coordinator at Woodstock City Church. “From the foam blocks to the music makers, the students are able to be just kids and use their imagination.” She notes another benefit: “The parents are able to sit back, knowing that the playground is safe for their children.”
The benefits of socialization for children with special needs are many. Interaction with other kids helps them develop social and communication skills; they receive all the physical activity benefits and also build problem-solving skills.
Parks are important for the children who play there, plus they provide a vital connection for the people who care for the children. The number of friendships formed and amount of advice and support given at city parks is immeasurable. Parks are the meeting place for caregivers of the next generation. Peer support is even more critical for those who are dealing with children with special needs. Parents in the special-needs community are often isolated, which can lead to depression and anxiety. A healthy community takes care of everyone.
The director of Woodstock Parks and Recreation, Michael Huffstetler, says the park has already become a destination. He sees visitors from other cities enjoying the park regularly. He adds, “We are planning for Little River Park on Rope Mill Road, and we have heard from many citizens who would love to see something similar to the Downtown Playground.”David M. Martinez, head of Special Education Olympics Cherokee County, notes, “Many individuals with disabilities face multiple barriers to participation in physical activities and are nearly half as physically active as nondisabled peers.” The accessible, inclusive Downtown Playground changes everything, though. The park in the heart of Woodstock validates that Woodstock is a community with a heart.