Engineering Students to Customize Playground for All

Children of all abilities will soon have a place to play together in Durham. With the help of volunteers, including several Duke students, the Durham Parks and Recreation Department began construction in mid-August of a fully handicap-accessible playground at Morreene Road Park. Slated to open on Oct. 1, the playground will be further customized in the coming months with the addition of designs developed and built by members of Duke’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

The park effort began in the fall of 2004 when Duke student Ripal Shah, founder of the non-profit organization “From the Ground Up,” approached representatives of the Parks and Recreation Department about creating a play area that could be enjoyed by all children, including those with disabilities. It is the mission of the organization started by Shah, who graduated last May, to create recreational and social opportunities for kids with disabilities.

“The idea wasn’t to segregate children with disabilities, but rather whenever possible to install pieces of equipment and play areas that all children can use and to supplement with equipment that specifically addresses the accessibility and sensory needs of children with disabilities,” said recreation manager Sarah Hogan of Durham Parks and Recreation.

However, most of the commercially available playground equipment geared toward kids with disabilities is focused only on wheelchair accessibility, said rising junior and civil and environmental engineering major Chris Neufeld, who is leading EWB’s local effort.

“That’s where we come in.”

After hearing about the playground project early on, EWB members offered to come up with custom designs that tap into multiple senses, allowing kids with different disabilities to play side by side with kids of normal ability. Design project ideas now in the works include star-shaped sand tables with embedded objects under the sand surface to provide a sense of discovery, Neufeld said. The sand tables will tie into outer space-themed activity stations, he added.

The project is an especially meaningful one for Neufeld, a native of Floral Park, N.J., who has spent the last five summers working at a recreational summer camp for kids with mental and physical disabilities.

“For me, the project merges my two main interests: engineering and disabled populations,” Neufeld said. “It’s a perfect fit.”

EWB member Charles Wang, a double major in biomedical and electrical and computer engineering from Taiwan, was among the volunteers that pitched in to help with the playground’s initial construction.

“It is always nice to give back and do something positive,” Wang said. “These specialty playgrounds are rare and in high demand. I hope Duke EWB can help start a trend.”