Anybody Can Play

Community-built playground gives children of all abilities a place to learn and play together

Oct. 12, 2016

Discovering an unexplored playground is a magical childhood experience.

In Cookeville it’s now one every child can have.

At the Heart of the City playground, kids of all abilities can play together in a space that’s 100 percent handicap-accessible.

That’s something that is not always an option for the 2.8 million special needs children in the U.S.

For those kids, being included in playtime can be life-changing, both physically and emotionally.

The Ability Whirl, shipped from Europe, is a merry-go-round that is flush with the ground so wheelchairs can roll on and lock in place.

“It was amazing when this all-inclusive concept came together, and my wife and I knew we wanted to volunteer,” says TJ Overstreet, playground construction captain.

“We have a child with special needs, and we knew he didn’t have a place he could play and spend time with his brothers and other friends, so we jumped on board real quick.”

The plan for the project was initially much less ambitious than the 12,500-square-foot playground that resulted.

“Our plan was to raise $250,000 in a year, and then we added the special needs component,” says Kelly Swallows, project co-chair.

“No one thought we could do it, but in the end, we raised $500,000 and 2,800 people volunteered to help us build it.”

A mural of Burgess Falls was turned into a climbing wall for the playground.

Making it magical

The resulting space is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

It features a:

  • Train and depot
  • Pirate ship
  • Fire station
  • Miniature Burgess Falls Rock Wall
  • Capshaw Cave Tunnel, and
  • Tennessee Tech castle, which has a treasure box, underground tunnel and shaky bridge.

Pavers and pickets were purchased by community members and businesses to fund the playground.

For those with special needs, it has:

  • 10 ramps and zero places a wheelchair or walker can’t reach
  • A shock absorbent, porous rubber surface for stability
  • An Ability Whirl, a merry-go-round that is flush with the ground so wheelchairs can roll on and lock in place
  • A roller table that allows a child with no use of their lower body to pull themselves through
  • Low-hanging monkey bars for kids in walkers
  • Specialized therapy swings that stimulate brain function

The roller table and therapy swing allow all children (including those who have no use of their lower bodies) to take a turn.

“Using one of these swings, children stimulate their occipital lobe, which controls visual processing — something all children need to develop,” says Swallows.

“Most children with special needs don’t have access to play structures that stimulate that part of the brain.”

Before the playground was built, there was nowhere in a 90-mile radius for kids of all abilities to play together.

Today, 200-plus visitors on any sunny day show the potential of Heart of the City to make all kids healthier and happier.

“I love seeing children of all ages outside enjoying fresh air, moving and playing,” says Swallows.

“I often wonder, ‘Where were these children playing one year ago?’

“And the truth is they may have been inside watching TV or playing a video game.

“It makes us so happy to see kids moving and having fun.”

Photos by Patrick Sheehan.