Noah’s Playground for Everyone (Lighthouse Beach at Lawson Park, Sheridan Rd and Clinton Pl, Evanston; noahsplayground.org) This lakefront playground was built in the shadow of Evanston’s lighthouse in 2008 in memory of 2½-year-old Noah Cutter, whose parents helped pay for it. Noah’s mom, Julie Cutter, recalls that there weren’t many playgrounds where her physically disabled son could play. “There was nothing he could do,” she says. She made sure that wouldn’t be the case for others at this playground that addresses the needs of children with sensory, developmental and physical limitations. The ramp-covered play area peaks in the center, so children in wheelchairs can perch at the top. Kids also can play on the specially supported swings, read Braille boards, sip from two-tiered drinking fountains and eat at open-sided picnic tables. Attention to detail is everywhere: Bright colors were purposefully used in the design to help kids with vision impairments navigate the equipment; small nooks around the playground provide comfort for those coping with sensory overload. And while not specifically marked, be on the lookout for interesting touch-and-smell plants that aid sensory development, including herbs, super-soft lamb’s ears, and chocolate mint-scented leaves.
“Every year, I get 10 to 15 e-mails saying, ‘My child enjoyed a park like he’s never enjoyed a park in his life,’ ” Julie says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Mothers on a Mission Playground (Berwyn Gardens Park, Kenilworth Ave, north of Cermak Ave, Berwyn; 708-749-4900) Once a little-used inline skate park, this impressive, special-needs-friendly playground opened in October 2011. Named after the advocacy group that spearheaded the idea, it has special sensory features even at its entry: One of the two sidewalk entries has two-inch hills and bumps that wheelchair-using kids like to roll over. Besides accessible ramps, rubbery ground covering and oversized swings with back support, the playground area displays eye-level, touchable art pieces (new mosaics are scheduled to be added this summer). Check out the unique AeroGlider, a boatlike rocker wide enough to accommodate two wheelchairs and standing children.
Thaddeus James Weisner Park (Fourth and Flagg Sts, Aurora) This 5,500-square-foot park is best known for its slide: Wheelchairs can be rolled up the eight-foot-long ramp, with room on top for someone to help a child out of a chair and down the slide. It’s named in memory of Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner’s son, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who loved slides so much that his parents would carry him up, then ride down with him. The park also has wheelchair-accessible picnic tables and ground covering made of ground-up tires, which is both a smooth surface for wheelchairs and good for cushioning falls.
Mt. Greenwood Park (3721 W 111th St, 312-747-6564, chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/mt-greenwood-park) A massive neighborhood fund-raising effort helped pay for a $1.2 million renovation to create a fully accessible playground that opened on the Southwest Side in 2008. Today, it’s a popular spot for special education programs thanks to the rubber surfaces and spiral ramps that lead to sensory items at each play level. There are two play-lot structures, one designed for 2- to 5-year-olds and another for 5- to 12-year-olds. Children with impaired sight like to pull on the park’s music-making strings and rock in the Sway Fun, a glider with benches and space for wheelchairs. Outside the playground, there’s also an ADA-accessible ball field and a pool with a wheelchair lift.