By Dan Russo
COLTS NECK – The Colts Neck Lions Club is raising money to fund the construction of a playground in Monmouth County specially designed for children who are blind or who have visual impairment.
The playground will be either a completely new structure or an addition to an existing one. It will include special features that use the children’s senses other than sight, such as touch and hearing, to navigate and interact with the jungle gym.
But the project’s goal extends beyond creating a space for children with visual impairment to play. Justin Lotano, president of the Lions Club branch in Colts Neck, hopes the playground will bring together children with and without visual impairment so they may interact and play in an inclusive environment.
“(The playground) allows (children with visual impairment) to have a platform to interact with the other children and have something that will help them be more comfortable in that environment,” Lotano said.
While the plans, location and contractor for the project have not been finalized yet, Lotano reached out to EcoPlay Playgrounds, Inc. for preliminary design ideas and price estimates.
The Georgia-based custom playground design company, which created a jungle gym at the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI) in Atlanta, aligns with Lotano’s vision on an inclusive play space.
“We as playground designers want our playgrounds to be enjoyed by everyone and that includes potentially those with visual impairments,” said Dan Thrailkill, a commercial playground consultant at EcoPlay Playgrounds.
Special features of the playground could include a brightly colored, rubberized surface. As a much softer surface than concrete, this material is used at the access points of the playground so children can feel where the entrance is. It’s also used beneath the jungle gym to soften the landing if a child was to fall, Thrailkill said.
Special auditory devices – such as bells, wind chimes and drums – are also put at the four corners of the playground. The different instruments help children map the structure by associating the sound with a specific area.
“(These features are) about sensory, so everything here engages the senses in some way, shape or form,” said Thrailkill, who is also a certified playground safety inspector.
Other possible features include an engraved map of the playground at the entrance so children can feel where certain structures are and a maximum height difference of 6 inches between decks.
Thrailkill added that slides and access points are on opposite sides to limit kids’ directional confusion, and that pads with different textures both mark the edge of the structure and are interactive for the children.
“If you didn’t know these little details you probably wouldn’t even realize it was a special playground,” said Lotano.
The Colts Neck Lions Club, whose parent organization, Lions Club International, has a long history of performing services to help the blind and visually impaired, is looking to use grant money to fund the construction of the playground. In addition, the organization has held events like a pancake breakfast and brewery tour to raise funds for the project.
Lotano said while he’d like to build the playground at home in Colts Neck, if the space is not available he’d at least like to keep the project local and within Monmouth County.
However, Albert Plevier, vice president of the Monmouth County Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, raised concerns about the need for the project.
“In the area how many visually impaired, how many blind children are going to be able to use (the playground),” said Plevier, who has been blind for 42 years. “From my knowledge, from what I’ve experienced (sight impairment numbers) have gone down, so I don’t know exactly what need it is.”
Nicole Brossoie, assistant commissioner of public affairs in the New Jersey Department of Human Services, wrote in an email that while “definitions of visual impairment vary greatly, so there’s not a lot of hard data,” there is an estimated 2.3 percent rate of visual impairment in the state.
So with Monmouth County’s population of 622,710 people, of which about 150,000 are children, “we can speculate that there are about (15,500 individuals) with visual impairments, including 3,750 children,” Brossoie said.
While certainly unique, this type of playground would not be the first in New Jersey. The St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City houses one of these specialized playgrounds for children with disabilities.
Lotano met with the school’s director of communications to tour their playground and see firsthand how the special features work.
Ellen Felicetta, the communications director for the St. Joseph’s School of the Blind, is supportive of bringing a specialized playground to the Monmouth County area. She said that these types of playgrounds are important because they are not just for children with visual impairment.
“I think that what’s good about these playgrounds is that they are all-inclusive,” Felicetta said. “They work for children with disabilities, they work for (children without disabilities) as well.”
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