Think Out Loud

REBROADCAST: A mission to make playgrounds inclusive for children of all abilities

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Aug. 28, 2023 8:56 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Dec. 19

Chelsea Anderson Memorial Play Station is a fully accessible playground in the city of Vancouver's Marshall Park which is expected to open in September 2023. Among the play features it offers is a teeter totter which has been modified for children who use wheelchairs to be able to experience.

Chelsea Anderson Memorial Play Station is a fully accessible playground in the city of Vancouver's Marshall Park which is expected to open in September 2023. Among the play features it offers is a teeter totter which has been modified for children who use wheelchairs to be able to experience.

Lindsey Goodwick


In September, the newly redesigned Chelsea Anderson Memorial Play Station opened at Marshall Park in Vancouver. But this isn’t your typical playground. For one thing, wood chips have been replaced with smooth surfaces to allow children in wheelchairs easy access to play features, including a merry-go-round and swing, modified for their use and enjoyment. Instead of an abundance of steel and plastic, natural elements also abound, from a sensory garden to water features and a sandy play area for kids to explore and interact with. Harper’s Playground, a Portland-based nonprofit, entered into a partnership in 2018 with Vancouver city officials to design and raise the funds to build the $4 million fully accessible playground. We spoke with G Cody QJ Goldberg, the co-founder and chief play officer of Harper’s Playground, in August 2023 to learn about the personal motivation which drives his vision of creating “radically inclusive” playgrounds.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A newly redesigned playground is opening in Vancouver within just a few weeks. It’s called CHAMPS, or the Chelsea Anderson Memorial Play Station at Marshall Park. It’s not your typical playground. The wood chips have been replaced with smooth surfaces to allow people in wheelchairs easy access to play features, including a merry-go-round and a swing that will accommodate them. Plus instead of just a big tangle of steel and plastic, there will be a lot of natural elements, from a sensory garden, to water features, to a sandy play area. The project was spearheaded by Harper’s Playground, a Portland based nonprofit that was created about a dozen years ago and has now worked on sites around the country and even internationally. G Cody QJ Goldberg is the co-founder and chief play officer of Harper’s Playground. He joins us now to talk about his model for radically inclusive playgrounds. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

G Cody QJ Goldberg: It’s really good to be here, Dave. Thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for coming here. How did playgrounds become your life’s work?

Goldberg: Well, it all does go back to the birth of my daughter Harper who experiences a pretty significant disability. Having been told by the doctors shortly after her birth that we should expect she would never walk or talk in her lifetime, that’s really what took us as a family on a different trajectory. And when we walked to our neighborhood park with her four years later, her maiden voyage, using a walker, using wheels to get around, what was otherwise a glorious day for us ended with her getting stuck in the wood chips that surround typical playgrounds. And that’s really the genesis of this whole movement.

Miller: What did you do after that?

Goldberg: Well, it was really my wife who did something. She first declared that that was not OK. And then she gave me a to-do list, which included calling Portland Parks and Recreation and telling them that we wanted them to build a playground that worked for our daughter Harper. And when they told us that they had no budget for such a project, we said “how hard could it be to have a fundraiser?” And we went on to raise $1.2 million in three years.

Miller: Can you describe the elements that are a part of Harper’s Playground now? That is both the name of your organization and the first playground that you built. What makes that different from other parks in Portland, and many other playgrounds around the world?

Goldberg: First and foremost, it is about getting rid of those wood chips. Those woodchips, while legally declared as ADA compliant, they really in practice are not. The woodchips are required to surround the big structures, so we also eliminate the structure as well. And it turns out unstructured play is the type of play that kids need. They get that in a much higher volume when you take away a structure and you make a landscape.

Think about the word playground. It was never intended to be a structure. It’s a ground. So for us it’s removing the woodchip, removing the structure, and building a landscape, a really beautiful and elegant landscape that attracts a lot of people. And the ultimate beauty of Harper’s Playground, what really makes it different, is it attracts more people, a wider variety of people. And the people play together. That’s the special sauce of Harper’s playground. It’s not what we put in it, it’s actually what we don’t put in it. We allow for people to connect.

Miller: It’s interesting that you’re describing it this way because I was preparing for this conversation yesterday afternoon while my kids are playing at Kʰunamokwst Park, which is a pretty newish park in Northeast Portland. I would read about your organization sometimes watching kids play, and the biggest joy that I saw among kids yesterday was two things. One, when there were no skaters in the ramps, and little kids would carom around there, running and zooming and enjoying the curves. And when a bunch of kids were climbing up the pretty tall poles that held up some of the swings, going way higher than seemed safe. But they were clearly enjoying it.

Neither of these things were being used the way I assume the designers of the park intended. It was kids just figuring out ways to do fun things for themselves. How do you design a place where that’s possible?

Goldberg: The central feature for us is a hill. We love putting astroturf covered hills. We would cover them in natural grass if the grass would hold up. The hill is an unstructured space, and it does not tell you what to do with it. So kids somersault down them, they roll down them, they wrestle on them. Parkour happens. The whole idea of being unstructured and mimicking nature as best as possible is you are not dictating what the child is supposed to do. That is really the problem with the structure. The structure absolutely says here’s how you do it. Here’s what you do. Here’s how you interact. And kids’ brains are hardwired to make up their own pathways to wanna do their own thing. It’s why kids play with the box more than the toy. It’s the same idea.

Miller: What kept you going? After navigating city bureaucracy and doing all kinds of different versions of fundraising, small scale and large scale, you built Harper’s Playground. That could have been the end. Why wasn’t it?

Goldberg: It really does go back to closer to when Harper was born, and my personal experience of frankly being worried about her future, and assessing my role in helping her navigate this world. I really made a commitment to whatever you want to call it, the universe or God or however, that if I could find a way to change the world for Harper, that I would commit the rest of my life to that. And after my wife suggested the playground and we got rolling on the playground, I recognized as it started to take shape here in Portland and it became a big movement, that that was the thing. So I have dedicated the rest of my life to this movement because I see it changing the world for ultimately both of my girls.

I want to see this world become a more inclusive place to be. I think that the world can be a hard place to navigate for people who experience disabilities. That was why I was so fearful at first. Now I’m so so excited that my daughter has inspired a movement that is going global. And that was always the intention.

Miller: Is there a difference for you between an accessible playground and an inclusive one?

Goldberg: Absolutely. That’s a great question. Accessible is the first layer of what we call inclusive design. We have three layers of inviting design that we talk about. And the first layer is physically inviting. So accessible is really all about can somebody, especially if they use wheels, navigate the entire space?

Miller: Without getting stuck in what you said is legally allowed under the ADA, but physically doesn’t work, wood chips.

Goldberg: Or encounter a staircase that is otherwise unnecessary.

Miller: Or a huge curb or something.

Goldberg: Correct. So it’s smooth everywhere.

Miller: That seems like maybe even that is rare. But that’s just the first bar for you. So what’s next?

Goldberg: The features that we select are selected to be adaptive to some degree. So that once somebody gets to it, can they use it? Accessible is so often used interchangeably with inclusive, just because people just don’t know yet.

Miller: So what’s an example of an adaptive or inclusive piece of play structure? Because there are some play structures, even though the hill seems like the perfect version of play for you. For example, I read that there is some kind of wheelchair enabled swing at the new park that’s opening. So what is that? How does that work?

Goldberg: That’s been one of the more difficult features for the playground industry to design, both for functionality and safety. It’s a big heavy apparatus. But allowing somebody who needs to stay in their wheelchair a chance to actually swing, it’s been a dream of ours for years. This new feature is very new. It’s gonna be one of the first ones installed in the state of Washington. We’re really excited about that.

The other feature that I think illustrates the adaptive component, we have an elevated sand table so children can play with wet sand. Wet sand is like the holy grail of play materials. We have a cutout in that table so wheelchairs can wheel in and play with the wet sand. Those are two examples. There’s a lot of other examples. Anything we put in is usable by everybody.

Miller: Are inclusive playgrounds more expensive to build than the standard ones that are everywhere?

Goldberg: Not necessarily. Especially if you’re talking about new construction, it’s very comparable. When you’re replacing a structure with an inclusive playground, it’s going to be more expensive than just putting another structure in there, because the whole landscape has been designed just to replace it with a structure. But I like to frame that conversation more about value than expense. So if the expense is even double, but it serves hundreds more people, it’s far more valuable ultimately.


Miller: How do you think about fostering inclusion for neurodivergent kids, for kids who are on the spectrum or who might be dealing with various sensory issues?

Goldberg: I think ultimately that’s why the landscape invites everyone and they connect with one another. Nature really helps that. I think for children on the spectrum who are overwhelmed by larger crowds, having good natural environments all throughout the space where they can retreat perhaps and find a little bit of respite from that high energy. Just the fact that so many people of different backgrounds and abilities are together, it means they’re talking about these things. And then there’s more awareness amongst their peers on how each other plays.

One of the things I have to get in here because it’s so important. We work with communities all the time to design these playgrounds. There’s always adults in the room who are telling us what we’ve already done is impossible. That’s one of my favorite experiences. But the kids in the room are always saying we should spare no expense, we should never compromise. We want it to work for everybody. Kids are awesome. I love working with kids.

Miller: You’re not just thinking about kids, right?

Goldberg: Everybody. Everybody.

Miller: So how do you think about non-kids when you’re designing a playground? What’s an example of the design thinking that goes into engaging adults?

Goldberg: I’m now 54 and I have a new knee, a recently installed knee. A lot of seating. We put a lot of seating into our parks. A lot of shade. I think with global warming and the sunny nature of a lot of parks, if they’re too hot, then people aren’t gonna stay as long.

Miller: I felt that yesterday at Kʰunamokwst, there’s one big tree in this gorgeous new park, one big tree in the center of the entire play area. So that means for you, planting trees?

Goldberg: Planting or choosing locations that have them for sure. We look forward to encouraging communities to start planting now in areas where they think it will make a good playground, because it takes 50 to 100 years to get a good tree.

And then of course, just the natural beauty of the space attracts more people of all ages. We put a lot of artwork into our parks. So they feel like a plaza. I think of them as more like a European plaza that happens to have play features within it.

Miller: When you travel around the state or the country or wherever, I imagine you go to playgrounds just as part of your life now, what are you paying attention to?

Goldberg: Well like you shared about yesterday, I watch how people are using the space. Don’t focus on how the space has been designed, but how it’s how it’s actually working. I think observing people in interactive conditions is really what has driven our whole design theory. How does it actually work? Sometimes there’s a feature that just looks so cool that we at least put it in the queue, even if we don’t see it being used.

Miller: What’s an example of that? Something you saw somewhere that you were jealous of and wanted to recreate?

Goldberg: Oh, I love this question. Up in Everett, Washington, there’s a huge boulder. We use a lot of boulders in our parks. There’s a huge boulder that’s been sliced into pieces, so it’s rough edges and also smooth edges. And it’s been installed in the playground on end. And I saw kids using their hands pushed up against the smooth parts to shimmy up to the top of the rocks. They also were stationing themselves on a bench near the rocks, jumping onto the side of the rock to see if they could hold on to this sheer piece. It’s a beautiful execution of a simple form that is played with in many ways. And it’s beautiful.

Miller: It’s an interesting example, and you’ve mentioned boulders before, because correct me if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t sound like something that somebody in a wheelchair could take advantage of in a major way. But you’re okay with that. It seems like you’re not arguing that every single thing in a playground that you design has to be completely usable by every person of every ability.

Goldberg: Absolutely. And that would be a fool’s errand. That is definitely one of the things I have to explain to communities who are trying to make that work is that the ultimate goal is connection.

Miller: What is connection?

Goldberg: Connection is a really important word to me. Connection actually begins with how our brains function. You make connections, pathways in your brain. When you connect ideas, that’s how we’re advancing forward. But connecting with others. Connecting with peers. That person who’s using a wheelchair may not be able to take full advantage of a feature, but they can be right there with them. Most of what I observe in playgrounds is people playing together, whether it’s verbal play or chasing each other. If they can’t actually necessarily get that much out of that feature, that’s okay ultimately. As long as they can be there.

Miller: Looking back on your work now, I think it started around 2009 or so, how do you feel about what you’ve accomplished, the actual playgrounds that are sprinkled around the Northwest and other states, in Tokyo as well, in the context of so many other playgrounds that are neither inclusive nor accessible? How do you think about that balance?

Goldberg: It’s a really good question, Dave. I spend at least 85% of my time frustrated that we have not taken this further, that it’s not as ubiquitous as I think it should be. And I reserve at least a little space to feel pretty proud of where it’s come. When we started our movement, I really feel like the word inclusive was not being used that much. And I feel like it has really come a long way. And Harper’s Playground has just played a small part of that for sure. But I’m happy that we’ve been able to do that.

Miller: What do you think would need to happen for the kinds of design choices that you’re advocating for, for them to become more common? And what I mean is not to have your organization be the consultant or the designer all over the world, but just to have it be more common when someone’s designing a playground it’s a given that they will think in this way?

Goldberg: Our ultimate strategy and goal is policy change. And our big north star goal is to put ourselves out of business. There will be no reason for a nonprofit called Harper’s Playground when this is the model. And so I guess you could call them lofty goals.

Miller: What’s next for your organization in terms of playgrounds in the works that you’re excited about?

Goldberg: I am so excited to share that. We will be the design team behind John Lewis Memorial Playground in Selma, Alabama. This is a really rare opportunity to take the social justice work that is inherent in our work to the next level. Foot Soldiers Park will honor the heroes who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and helped ensure voting rights back in 1965. So we are thrilled to be working on that project.

Closer to home, we have two in Bothell, Washington. And our whole model is to keep taking on consulting projects where we can help others replicate what we do.

Miller: I mentioned that you are the co-founder and chief play officer for this nonprofit. You’re wearing a hat that says “play” in neon green letters. When’s the last time that you played?

Goldberg: I try to play every day. I played this morning with both of my girls. Today is the first day of school. Harper is a junior, and her younger sister Lennon is a freshman in high school. And we played and wrestled this morning, just getting excited for the big first day of school.

Miller: Do you play without your kids?

Goldberg: I think I try to make sure I maintain a playful mindset all the time. I don’t take anything too seriously. I try to be playful and how I navigate the world. The only thing I really take seriously is play. I think it’s a real serious subject.

Miller: Cody Goldberg, thanks very much.

Goldberg: Oh, so nice of you. Thanks for having me.

Miller: G Cody QJ Goldberg is the cofounder and the chief play officer for the nonprofit, Harper’s Playground. Their latest playground is going to be opening up within two weeks or so in Vancouver.

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