In the late 80's the Lawrence school district noticed that while its school facilities provided equal learning opportunities and mobility for disabled children, the playground provisions for them were virtually nil. This was pointed out to them by the parents of one Ryan Gray, a ten-year-old child paralyzed from the waist down with Multiple Sclerosis. Unfortunately for him he was in fifth grade by that time, and almost out of the "playground age group." However, the district paid attention and started raising funds for a playground that could be enjoyed by everybody, regardless of special needs. By the time it was complete (in the late 90's) Ryan Gray had passed away, so the city decided to name the playground in his honor.

With that out of the way, this playground is my city-wide favorite because it is probably the most fun playground ever constructed. This is not just hyperbole either, folks, the Ryan Gray playground has it all. Plus, it seems to live up to the designers' hopes for universal play; there's a ride here for every kid, though the severely disabled will need a helper to utilize them. Here are a few features:

  • Voice Lilies - At about three feet off the ground, these are usable by any kid or adult, including those in wheelchairs. They are vaguely funnel shaped plastic "flowers," which connect to tubes that network under the ground. When spoken into loudly, your voice can be heard (with pleasing flanging and distortion) from any other voice lily on the playground. Tres cool, no?
  • Roller Slide - One twelve foot slide and two five foot slides, each made out of a row of rollers rather than the traditional polished metal. These are great because they're well-oiled and blazingly fast -- part of me wishes they'd pushed together a hill and put in a twenty-five foot long version. Notably, they can be "climbed" up with either stairs or a series of padded ramps, which are common throughout the park.
  • Wicked Cool Play Structure - Made of sanded, splinter-free wood, this structure is absolutely huge and has all manners of play devices. Tubes, windows, poles (with and without rungs), a Jacob's ladder, two steering wheels, and the ubiquitous tic-tac-toe board. There's enough room here for like 20 kids to play at once, or six to ten college students (hehe). The play devices are mostly made in such a way that disabled children can use one variation or another of them, and no part of the structure is unreachable by arm-climbing alone. Best of all, this is actually built as two structures connected by two zip lines! You can just grab one of the handles and propel yourself at high speed to the other side.
  • Jungle Gym - And not some insipid four-feet-high one either, this is a tall, old-school, quality jungle gym. Its top is six feet off the (wood chip padded) ground, and it probably has a twenty-five foot diameter. Lots of room, lots of fun.
  • Swing Set - Saving the best for last. You only have to read my writeup under swinging to know that the swingset is my favorite part of any playground. The swingset here is just about perfect. Five each short and tall swings are present, which are well maintained and don't squeak or have rust. Interestingly, their chains are plastic-coated, so it's impossible to pinch your fingers between the links. Also, there are two arm-powered swings, which have a seat and two handles that you push and pull to make the swing move. These can go surprisingly fast, and are quite fun. Finally there are two sideways tire swings, the kind that often carry twice as many children as they probably should.

The Ryan Gray playground for all children is located beside the Hillcrest School, at the intersection of Emery Rd. and Hillcrest. To get there from I-70, take the West Lawrence exit, and drive on McDonald until it turns into Southbound Iowa St. Follow Iowa South and hang a left on University Dr., then two blocks later a right onto Emery. On your left you should find the playground, and there is parking throughout the neighborhood. Fair warning that while it stays unlocked all night, there's no overhead lighting, and the local cops may or may not harass you for being there at 2 am.

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