Innovative Woodbury playground designed for kids of all abilities

Ben Anco finds shade in the light tunnel.
Ben Anco in the light tunnel at Madison's Place, an all-inclusive playground in Woodbury.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This summer, 11- year-old Ben Anco gets to do something he's never done before: He gets to go to the playground. No wood chips, steps or rocks to hold him back.

You see, Ben is in a wheelchair. And until now, that kept him from enjoying a typical childhood outside. So as soon as the largest fully accessible playground in the Twin Cities opened, he couldn't wait.

Now he gets to chase his younger brother, play tag, go up high and sneak down low. He gets to swing and sway. There is even a zip line he says makes him feel like he's "sticking his head out of a car window."

"He can experience what it's like to be one of the kids," said Ben's mom Page Laska. The Woodbury woman has two children with disabilities. Ben, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, or SMA and his little brother, 8-year-old Garrett, who has Asperger's.

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"Thirty years ago we didn't see children with SMA even surviving, they didn't live to be this age or older. We didn't see kids in wheelchairs or kids with sensory needs, in schools, we just didn't see that," she said. "To come here, it's a symbol that Ben is part of the community and he's being included in the community."

Kids with disabilities often miss out on a lot of the fun of the playground, but that's gradually starting to change with Madison's Place that opened in Woodbury earlier this month.

Built to give children a place to get away from doctor's appointments, hospital equipment and blood tests, the playground is named after a little girl who couldn't make it past her second birthday.

Madison Claire Millington was a brown-eyed baby girl who died from Spinal Muscular Atrophy in 2004. Her mother, Dana Millington, created a foundation that raised the $830,000 needed to build the playground. She wanted to give other children an experience Madison never had.

Millington couldn't hold back tears as she talked about the bond she's formed with Laska and many of the families she's met over the past decade raising money for the playground.

"This was so important for us to give families like Page just something every day that they can do that's not hard and difficult," Millington said.

For many children with disabilities, everyday tasks can't be done without help from their parents. But Madison's Place offers a sense of independence, a place to make friendships and build relationships.

On a sunny Wednesday morning, Ben didn't have any trouble navigating the playground by himself and for the first time, he took the lead while his little brother followed.

Ben Anco explores Madison's Place.
Children step to the side of a ramp as Ben Anco drives his wheelchair around Madison's Place. "He gets to be a real kid," his mom, Page Laska, said about being able to take Ben to a fully accessible playground.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The sprawling lime green and purple structure doesn't look unusual and any kid can play on it. But the rubber surface is easy for wheelchairs, walkers and canes. There are ramps everywhere — even up to the very top. A sway boat and swings have special harnesses for those who can't sit up. And a metal slide is in place of plastic that work better for children with cochlear implants or autism.

The metal slide has been helpful for Ben's brother Garrett, who has sensory needs.

"He would cover his ears which can be deemed as anti-social, mean," Laska said of his reaction on a traditional slide.

The playground also has other sensory pieces to stimulate development. A favorite is the tunnel with cutout stars that reflect light in different colors and move around as the sun moves. "He goes in there, he thinks that it's a little getaway and the stars are soothing to him," Laska said of Garrett. "And he pops right back out two minutes later it's completely different than getting overwhelmed and having to leave."

Children of all abilities fill the playground on warm summer afternoons. There are children running across the ramped structure, while others explore the Braille, textured letters, pictures and music.

Six-year-old Paityn Hengel has developmental disabilities. On her first trip to the playground, her grandmother Cheri Faragher said there were many imaginative things for her to do.

When Faragher asked Paityn what she likes about the park, she said "I like all the kids to play with me."

Garrett Anco takes a breather.
Garrett Anco, 8, takes a rest from chasing his brother Ben. The 16,000-square-foot park was built in honor of Madison Millington, who died in 2004 from spinal muscular atrophy at the age of 2.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The playground isn't just for children to play together, parents with disabilities appreciate the features as well.

Jon Rydberg, a father of 3 and 5-year-old boys, suffered a spinal cord injury as a child and has been in a wheelchair since he was a teenager. Rydberg said it was hard for sitting in the background while watching his kids play at traditional playgrounds.

"You want to be out there with them just like when you do at home, you want to do that here too" he said at Madison's Place. "Like when I take them up to play tennis, I'm there with them playing. A playground was one of the few things that I could not go out there as easy."

Woodbury's is the first accessible playground on this scale in Minnesota. But more playground designers are starting to plan similar ones in Cottage Grove and Shoreview to make a normal day out at the park something that doesn't leave out many children.

The normal pleasures are so new for many of the children, their parents have a hard time not tearing up watching them play.

Correction (June 27, 2016): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the amount of money raised to construct the playground.