The “Schulweg” inclusive play and meeting space in Ennigerloh
By Wiebe Erdmanski-Sasse (Dipl.-Ing. Landschaftsplanung/-ökologie / City of Ennigerloh)
The last weekend of March 2019 saw volunteers big and small roll up their sleeves under sunny skies to build an inclusive play and meeting space on an old playground on Schulweg in Ennigerloh.
A total of 44 people helped to implement the project over two days under the guidance of Ideenwerkstatt Lebens(t)raum e.V. Most of them were families with children, some of whom had a migration background, but there were also unaccompanied children and young people as well as people with disabilities. Many had already participated in the planning workshop. A passer-by made a telling remark: ̔They are actually actively involved in the construction process’.
For the small, financially weak town of Ennigerloh (19,000 inhabitants) in the cement district in the rural district of Warendorf in the Münsterland region, this is the first project of its kind and a real challenge, as the requirements for the inclusive participatory process regarding needs analysis, site search, planning workshop and hands-on building site are high.
However, "Inclusion – we're all in" is not just a slogan in Ennigerloh, but it is actually being implemented. The huge amount of voluntary work put in by the inclusion officer, supported by the “Inklusion vor Ort” (Inclusion at Local Level) working group, establishes a framework of many individual projects, also with schools, which made the inclusive play and meeting space project possible.
Moreover, inclusion is firmly embedded in the inner-city fabric. In addition to a residential institution for people with disabilities and an external group home, there is a short-term care facility for children with disabilities here, which is the only one in the Warendorf district and also not very common in the whole of Germany.
These 13 social institutions in the core city (i.e. kindergartens, also with a curative education group, primary and comprehensive school, youth center, facilities for people with disabilities and senior citizens) were included in the needs analysis from the very beginning. With the municipal council decision of December 2015 on the “Playground development planning for Ennigerloh-Mitte”, the city had launched a participatory process to upgrade its playgrounds. A total of around 1,000 children between the ages of three and twelve live in the core city.
In line with the council decision, the playgrounds are to be made more attractive and designed to encourage exercise, creative play and nature exploration. New user groups such as children under the age of three, people with disabilities, and multiple generations are to be addressed. This is because most of the playgrounds in the 1980s/90s were equipped with sturdy wooden equipment from the standard range (swings, seesaws, sandpit, horizontal bars). Since then, the equipment has been retained without undergoing major changes.
In order to address the issue of inclusion on playgrounds, the inclusion officer succeeded in inspiring a group of Master's students from the Technical University (TU) of Dortmund, Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, to take part in a project during the 2016/17 winter semester. In a needs analysis, 98 people in the 13 social institutions were asked about their wishes in detail and in line with their age (42 children, 22 young people, 6 people with disabilities, 7 senior citizens and 21 employees), and the results were presented to the public. The effort required would not have been feasible on the part of the administration.
The old Schulweg playground, close to the market square, was the obvious choice, albeit not an uncontroversial one. A reduction of the 1,900 m² playground area in favour of construction projects could also have been an option as part of the town centre redevelopment. The participatory process initiated by TU Dortmund revealed that that the construction of an inclusive playground with a large rubber flooring on the Schulweg playground is neither feasible due to the existing old trees, nor is it desired. The kindergartens in particular, which regularly use the playground, attach great importance to a design that incorporates natural elements.
With the concept of an "inclusive play and meeting space serving as a small urban park", Ennigerloh applied for the "Zukunft Stadtgrün" (Future of Urban Green Spaces) scheme in autumn 2017 and was awarded 60,000 euros in urban development funding. With the municipality contributing another 40,000 euros of its own, the construction sum was fixed at 100,000 euros.The submitted concept provided for a paved path leading across the playground instead of a purely turf area, as was previously the case. Most of the existing equipment was to be retained (i.e. zip line; one of two double swings; wooden multi-play structure with two towers, slide and wobbly footbridge; horizontal bars).
The following new elements were to be added: a sand and water play area with elevated tables and basins, a small wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, a small wheelchair trampoline, a belt swing, a seating area with a wheelchair-accessible table, a nature play area for smaller children for hands-on activities, and a separate area for older children.
The Ideenwerkstatt Lebens(t)raum e.V. was asked to do the further planning with a hands-on building site. The inclusive planning workshop, attended by 30 participants, took place in June 2018. They built three models in groups. The Ideenwerkstatt (ideas workshop) called the existing zip line into question and suggested dismantling it, as it takes up a lot of space. Two groups voted against keeping the zip line, only one voted in favour. This allowed for the spatial design to be completely reconceptualised.
The open space concept outlined by the Ideenwerkstatt at the planning workshop provides for a wide, near-natural brook with large stones in the centre, which is fed from the accessible water feature, crosses the main path in a ford and finally seeps into an infiltration ditch. The swings will be replaced by a large inclusive bird's nest swing. A hut village is to be built under the deciduous trees and seating platforms are to be provided under the conifers. In the transition between these two areas there will be a low ropes course – so much for the northern area and subsequent first construction phase. To the south, under the large plane tree, there will be a climbing trunk pile and a near-natural hillscape with a climbing ramp.
The fact that the zip line, a favourite among many children, was sacrificed for the sake of the redesign did not give those responsible any peace of mind. They were looking for a piece of playground equipment that was both inclusive and attractive for older children. Searching the internet, they came across a Canadian school that had filmed its large, climbable merry-go-round, into which children can be lifted from their wheelchairs. They indeed managed to find a comparable product in Germany – the space capsule.
Since it is not a classic wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, the team of the short-term care facility for children was asked to assess the inclusive play value of the playground equipment. The response was positive: the merry-go-round enables children with and without disabilities to play together and interact with each other; e.g. getting a push on the merry-go-round by other children or getting the merry-go-round spinning and keeping it in motion as a wheelchair user. Special emphasis was placed on the possibility of using the merry-go-round even when lying down, as its base is designed as a large bird's nest. This allows the children to perceive speed, rotation and changes in position.
However, there was still one problem: including installation by a specialist company, the merry-go-round was to cost 13,600 euros plus 20,000 euros for the poured impact-attenuating surfacing. This was not included in the construction sum of 100,000 euros. But giving up was not an option, especially for the inclusion officer. It was decided to finance the inclusive merry-go-round entirely through donations. They also found a way to cut costs by installing turf grid pavers suitable for fall protection. The amount of money to be raised through donations was thus reduced to 18,800 euros.
After the successful first building phase in March 2019, which received good press coverage, the inclusion officer’s fundraising efforts began to bear fruit. For 8 May 2020, the Inclusion Working Group planned to have a get-together party with various fundraising activities on the Schulweg playground on the occasion of the European Day of Persons with Disabilities. This, however, was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, as was the second building phase planned for June 2020. This required a new strategy. Instead of local fundraising campaigns, foundations were now contacted throughout Germany. And the concept from Ennigerloh again proved convincing. In summer 2020, all the required donations for the inclusive merry-go-round were raised. The Kolping Family of Ennigerloh lent a helping hand to complete the hands-on building site. It turned out that there had already been a building campaign by the Kolping Family on the Schulweg playground in 1979, the "Year of the Child". In addition to working on the project, the Kolping Family also donated a large information board in 2020. This will allow local reporting on the projects that fill the inclusive meeting space with life.
After a joint planting campaign in autumn 2019 by the comprehensive school and the garden team of Freckenhorster Werkstätten, a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities, an inclusive tree sponsorship project for ten newly planted trees on the Schulweg playground was launched in autumn 2020. This project on environmental and climate protection, which will run for several years, was made possible because the city has now established a placement for a Voluntary Ecological Year (Freiwilliges Ökologisches Jahr - FÖJ).
For 3 December 2021, the Inclusion Working Group is preparing an event for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, including the official opening of the inclusive merry-go-round. As a space capsule, it will be dedicated to the famous physicist Stephen Hawking. Pupils from the comprehensive school are working on an exhibition about this remarkable person, who did not let his will to live to be curtailed by his progressive physical disability.
And there is more to come in terms of inclusive play in Ennigerloh. In December 2020, the council decided to upgrade further playgrounds by installing new equipment, including a variety of special-needs equipment, a total of 16 small bird's nest swings, 12 sand play tables, and four small merry-go-rounds. In addition, in coordination with the inclusion officer, another project was launched, financed mainly through donations, with the aim of equipping every district with a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round.
But, of course, it is not just about wheelchair accessibility. For example, the short-term care children with disabilities who are not in wheelchairs are particularly fond of the low ropes course on Schulweg.
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