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Harper’s Playground: A Place for Everyone

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With spring in full swing, families are filling up local parks all over. One Saturday, I had some errands to do in Portland, and to reward my children for patiently accompanying me, we stopped at Arbor’s Lodge Park in Portland, which includes Harper’s Playground. Visiting a new park is always an exciting occasion, and this day was no exception. I immediately noticed the unique layout and variety of swings. I was happy I had thought to pack our lunch, because I knew we would be staying for a while.

I’d been noticing that my kids, now 6 and 8, are drawn more to the patch of trees at our local park than the actual playground. They scavenged to find the best “wand sticks” as they pretended to be Hermione and Harry the last time we were there. When they did go to the playground, they interrupted smaller children who were there by climbing on top of the tube slide and along the outside of the bridge. I had a sudden flashback to when they were toddlers and how frustrating it was to take them to a playground where older kids were not watching out for little ones. I wondered to myself: have my first and second graders outgrown playgrounds? Are we really there already?

A new trend toward both natural and inclusive playgrounds is spreading. Instead of structures made of colorful shiny plastic, don’t be surprised to see plain old logs and ropes making a comeback. A Portland-based nonprofit organization, Harper’s Playground, is on the forefront of this movement. The Goldberg family faced a dilemma when looking for places where their daughter, Harper, who used a walker, could play. So, they took matters into their own hands. Through grassroots fundraising and support of the Portland Parks and Recreation Department, Harper’s Playground launched their first project in Arbor Lodge Park in 2010. Now, 9 years later, five playgrounds have been completed in Portland, Bainbridge Island, and Salem, with three more planned in Portland, Seattle and Wabash, Indiana. Their goal is to construct playgrounds for everyone. The three pillars of their design are: physically inviting by being accessible and adaptive; socially inviting by including nature and community gathering spaces; emotionally inviting by way of beauty and thoughtful little details. “In short,” says G Cody QJ Goldberg, executive director of Harper’s Playground and co-founder along with his wife, April. “We are a blend of natural and inclusive where most playgrounds being built today are either one or the other, but not both.”

What I loved about our day at Arbor Lodge Park was that I didn’t have to intervene in my children’s play the way I do at some other parks. This playground was designed for exploration and socialization. Babies, toddlers, and bigger kids were enjoying the day all together. My kids helped to spin some preschoolers on the merry-go-round toy. It was the perfect shape, more like a bowl than just a platform, so I didn’t worry that the little ones were going to fly off if my kids ran too fast. I also appreciated that there were two climbing walls. One was much bigger, and separated from the smaller one so that my oldest climbed happily without needing to watch out for kids too young to attempt her heights. The large hill at the center of the playground was fun to climb and slide down, but offered a paved path circling the hill so that anyone can get to the top. The path through the park was spacious and inviting, making it easy to talk with other parents as my kids played without losing sight. I ate my lunch on one of the many benches (you can never have too many benches at a park) as my kids balanced along a twisting cement structure. It was one of those days where my kids were having too much fun to stop and eat.

When it was time to go, my kids refused to leave until I promised to schedule another day there. When I told them that there were two other parks in Portland designed by the same organization they decided we must visit them all. “How about one each Saturday? That would do, I think,” said my daughter. I agree. I loved our afternoon there and I can’t wait to see what Gateway Discovery Park and Dawson’s Park (both in Portland as well) have to offer.

Learn more about Harper’s Playground and their current and upcoming projects, including park locations, here.

Photos courtesy Harper’s Playground

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About Author

Sarah Mortensen recently completed her degree in marriage and family studies and works for Vancouver Public Schools as a paraeducator in addition to her role as associate editor of Vancouver Family Magazine. When Sarah is not reading to her kids or students, she is probably in her backyard taking care of her garden. She also enjoys hiking, hot chocolate, and dressing up for Halloween. She lives in Vancouver with her husband, son and daughter.

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