A Community of Belonging – Making Playgrounds Accessible for All

With the youngest of our community members close to heart, please know that this article – in its entirety – has been reviewed by, and respectfully published with, full parental permissions for any minors mentioned within. 

-the content creation team at Make it Marquette

Have you ever taken a stroll through Marquette’s Ellwood A. Mattson Lower Harbor Park? Maybe you’ve taken a break from classes to toss a frisbee across the field with friends, set up for a family picnic, watched the 4th of July fireworks, played catch with your dog… even if you’ve only ever set foot in the park for our annual Beer Fest – chances are you’ve noticed, or even interacted with, one of Marquette’s most iconic installations; the playground. Originally constructed in the mid-90s, the large castle-like wooden structure has been firmly seated at the epicenter of cultural events & activities happening within Lower Harbor Park for more than two entire decades. That means that there’s a considerable population of Marquette’s current residents – who are now adults with careers – who grew up running and laughing through its elaborate, wooden passageways. For parents, guardians & caretakers as well, there’s been years upon years of play-filled memories created from within the old structure; something the playground’s original builders would surely be proud of.

After 26 unforgettable years of service to generations of our region’s residents – and visitors – alike, however, the time has come once more for our community to rise together and develop what the next generation of play should be like here in Lower Harbor Park. The current playground is crumbling, you see; perhaps beneath the weight of those memories that cling to it – and while our instincts may be to rush in and protect such an iconic Marquette installation… the simple reality is that it’s too far gone to mend. The only thing left that we can do… is to honor it. Before it was ever constructed, the original playground began its life as an idea for a community space that could bring people together. Aiming to push that same vision even further for our communities, we’re thrilled to see new construction being planned for Lower Harbor Park that builds upon the established legacy of its predecessor;

play, for everyone.

A Playground for All

According to the community leaders closest to the project, the new Kids Cove construction will be a truly “all-inclusive playground”. While most new parks & playgrounds being built these days do, in fact, require a certain amount of accessibility to be integrated into their designs (called ADA-compliance); the concept for the Kids Cove Playground exists far beyond the scope of simple ‘compliance’ – promising to be a first-of-its-kind, milestone installation for accessibility & inclusivity in our region. We had a chance to speak with several key members of the Kids Cove team about their plans for the park, and while each and every single one of them will excitedly advocate for increased accessibility throughout our region – their true aim for the playground is to craft an experience that benefits the larger community as a whole.

Nheena Weyer Ittner, a celebrated local community member & current Executive Director for the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum, is leading the Kids Cove Project and was kind enough to walk us through the shared vision for the new park; saying “what we wanted was a stellar example of inclusivity”. From her description of the park, it’s clear that Kids Cove will lean into its thoroughly inclusive design, but through those elements, there will be a strong focus on community integration. In every corner of the park, there will be opportunities for play, curiosity & conversation – an aspect of the park’s design that the entire Kids Cove Team universally applauds. “When you sit down and take two people who are different and put them together – where they’re laughing, being challenged, just talking, or even crying – we see each other as human beings… we build friendships and relationships”, Ittner went on to say. As the leader for the entire project, Nheena sees the playground as a space where you’re not just interacting with the equipment, but with your local community as well.

Kids Cove will be moving away from the woodchip-style surface seen in the old park, opting instead to feature a more durable & accessible surfacing throughout the park that’s meant to help to protect from any soft falls. Layered on top of that new surfacing will be several designed ‘zones’ for community members to experience, including a music zone, swinging zone, climbing zone, quiet zone, and a ‘toddler’ zone, to name a few – and depending on how certain grants are awarded to the project, there’s even potential for a proper sensory garden to be installed. Visitors to the park will also notice unique sculptures & artworks, certain building materials being made from fully recycled plastics, and even a special new bathroom that’s suited for families that may need to make use of a larger changing table. Kids Cove is partnering with the Community Foundation of Marquette but also credits the Marquette Playgrounds for All Committee & the City of Marquette as being integral to the project’s ongoing success. Upon its completion, Kids Cove will be considered an official city playground of Marquette.

moving to marquette

Positioning Our Communities Towards Inclusivity

“What I’m hoping for is that people will come to this playground and realize the wonder of [Kids Cove] – and go back to their own communities and try to build the same thing”, Nheena made sure to say. She aims to inspire inclusive community efforts beyond Marquette through the Kids Cove Project – as she had once herself been similarly inspired to do the same. Joani Miller, a good friend of Nheena’s who’s recently passed away, was an incredible advocate for accessibility here in Marquette and was crucial to the creation of the Kids Cove Project. As a child, Joani had unfortunately contracted polio, eventually needing to make use of a wheelchair in her adult years as a result. In addition to her own unique experiences with accessibility issues, Joani found the ‘traditional’ playground experiences of certain children in her community to be particularly disheartening to observe. Finding inspiration in wanting to create a space where every child could have the same level of access to play, Joani began to visualize what an all-inclusive playground in Marquette could look like. Through her hard work and incredible dedication to her community, Joani’s efforts would eventually become the early concept for today’s Kids Cove Playground. Obviously inspired by Joani’s mission, Nheena and the rest of those involved in the current project have made sure to weave elements of Joani’s incredible character throughout the construction. Images of a colorful dragonfly can often be seen accompanying the Kids Cove Playground, and will even be seen as an art installation at the entrance to the new park; “Joani loved dragonflies”, Nheena said, “…she was a phenomenal woman”.

Even ahead of breaking ground (at the time of writing), the Kids Cove Project is already an incredible achievement for the Marquette area – but this community-funded effort for inclusivity does not stand alone. Just a few miles west of Marquette, the City of Negaunee is making efforts to improve accessibility within a number of their ongoing projects as well as their Moving Forward Plan. Nate Heffron, Negaunee’s City Manager, took some time to chat with us recently about a few of these projects; one of which involves an exciting rebuild of the public beach at Teal Lake. Officially known as the “Teal Lake Beach Expansion Project”, the plan is to expand the beach frontage, relocate century-old stormwater drainage pipes and drive community recreation into an otherwise underutilized local resource. Motorized boating isn’t allowed on the natural lake, so Nate means to take advantage of those restrictions by leaning into what is possible; swimming, kayaking, fishing, paddle-boarding, canoeing, and more… all the while ensuring that as many members of the local community can have access to those amenities as possible. “The principle behind equal access is dignity and respect”, Nate remarked, saying that the upgraded beach will feature permanent dock installations and a large wheelchair-friendly mat that will allow universal access to the water. In addition to the beach project, Nate has also helped to create a Sensory Park Committee for the city, which he hopes will directly oversee the reinvention of an old playground; “instead of building the same old playground, we want to be really specific… we’re concentrating on people with sensory disabilities”. Inviting members of the community that have first-hand experiences with accessibility issues into conversations like these, Nate hopes that Negaunee’s parks and recreational areas as a whole will become an increasingly attractive aspect for the town over time. 

Bay Cliff Health Camp, located in Big Bay, Michigan, is also a standout community-led effort for accessibility in our region. Offering year-round therapy and wellness services for both children and adults with disabilities, this incredible nonprofit is attracting its ‘campers’ from all over the state & beyond with its unique programming. According to Seth Rowles, Bay Cliff’s current Camp Director, a large percentage of their kids are coming from rural communities, so hearing about Kids Cove and other similar projects happening in these smaller towns, Seth can already see the immeasurable impact these local efforts will have on the greater region, saying “people with disabilities very rarely get opportunities as children to interact with people without disabilities and visa versa… an accessible playground where kids can just interact with each other and be able to navigate those relationships early in life is essential in both directions”. Within the programs at Bay Cliff itself, campers come and “get to be themselves first and not be identified by their disability”, according to Seth. While those experiences will always be of incredible value within those groups, Seth and many other notable community leaders in our region are excited to see what will come from the growing network of accessibility programs and inclusivity efforts taking hold throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a whole; organizations like the Caregiver Incentive Project and the SAIL Disability Network of the Upper Peninsula are also key resources that our communities can take advantage of as well.

Leaders Spearheading Change

“We can all do this, you don’t need a degree in special education to make inclusion happen”, Arica Altobello had to say. As a Speech-Language Pathologist for the Negaunee Public School System, Arica has been pushing for opportunities for inclusivity within the local school system; seeing firsthand just how beneficial it can be to their student population as a whole. One of her young students, named Sadie, has an incredibly rare neurological disorder called KIF1A which has had a significant impact on her language, motor skills, and overall development. According to Arica, Sadie was a sort of their “catalyst” for inclusion within the school system. Organizing something they called “Gene Day” for the school, the day-long event saw Sadie visiting several classrooms where she helped to teach students all about her disorder. Since the event, Sadie has become something of a young legend amongst the student population; “There were shirts and stickers and everything”, Arica humorously recalled, “… the day after school, there were kids on the playground [wearing] their ‘Gene Day’ shirts who saw Sadie in the park – and they went and played with her”. Also a caretaker for Sadie outside of school, Arica can recall a disheartening number of instances where Sadie’s ability to even access beaches, parks, and playgrounds has been difficult. “I have to literally carry a 6-year-old over my shoulder”, Arica revealed about their frequent outings.

Unsurprisingly, Arica leaped at the chance to get involved with the Kids Cove Project when it first became known to her – an experience that she’s been thrilled to be able to share with Sadie’s own mother, Shannon. As a nurse practitioner in the area, Shannon “gets a lot of perspectives”, Arica revealed, also mentioning that Shannon has quite a bit of talent as an artist. Through the Kids Cove Project, Shannon has been able to wield her creativity in a way that’s brought incredible success to one of their fundraising initiatives currently running through Loyal T’s. Remember those images of colorful dragonflies we mentioned earlier on? The ones that symbolically honor Joani’s dedication to her community? That’s Shannon’s design! – and we think Arica said it best; “Who better to draw something than a mother – for a project that will be life-changing for her child?”.

moving to marquette

In Conclusion

These wholesome efforts towards inclusivity and accessibility are what the Kids Cove Project strives for with its “Playground for All”. When Arica helped organize the ‘Gene Day’ for her school, or when Seth is able to bring a new camper into Bay Cliff, or when Nheena simply felt inspired to honor her friend… all of these examples could occur in just a single day, but when there’s a space for everyone – where there’s a mutually accessible platform where play and genuine human interaction can be provided every day – that’s the kind of lasting legacy that’s larger than just Marquette. All in all, we hope that you’re excited about the new Kids Cove Playground coming soon to Lower Harbor Park, but even if you don’t have a reason to explore the new space, we encourage you to throw yourself in the mix anyway. Echoing all of the incredible community leaders we had a chance to speak with for this article, Make it Marquette stands firm alongside them in a shared belief that our community is just stronger when we are all growing together.

The Kids Cove Playground is officially breaking ground in ‘Fall 2022’, with the official construction slated for sometime after demolition. The Kids Cove Project is still actively raising funds for the park, so if you’d like to help support the future of play in Marquette, we encourage you to snag a dragonfly shirt or simply visit Kids Cove MQT for additional details on this incredible community development.