Exploring Alabama - Playground Designers

Kids on playgrounds...having fun just seems to come naturally. But for youngsters with special needs a playground can be a place to watch others having fun. But soon, some Auburn University students may change all that.

A class of 15 industrial design students at Auburn took a challenge from a Sylacauga businessman to help design elements for a playground accessible by kids with handicaps. They did that...and more.

Joan Lundell designed the turtle rocker for kids in wheelchairs. A turtle shaped platform with side ramps for wheelchair and walker accessibility.

Thomas Murphy will have them scooting along in a hand powered racer. It's a hand operated race bike with simple ratchet gearing that multiplies the energy supplied by the driver.

Ryan Harvey's expandable electronic music machine that doubles as a communicator. It allows a youngster to create music or a series of sounds that take the place of speech. And Jeffrey Jones special pen for hands with limited function. With a single straightforward motion, the marker tips snap on and off.

And there were a dozen more great ideas.

Clarke Lundell is the head of the Auburn University Industrial Design Department. He says the students really became immersed in the project. "They were really thrilled to be involved and thrilled that they could make a contribution," said Lundell. "And that they could go beyond the product viability to something that contributes to someone's life."

Tsai Lu Liu an Assistant Professor and instructor for this project. "During the whole process of design they used a lot of their heart and not just their minds," said Liu. A lot of the college students spent time around kids with disabilities and learned some invaluable lessons.

Joan Lundell recalled a key finding. "How design really affects them," said the college senior. "And a lot of times they're overlooked because they're such a small part of the population."

Taylor Purcell is the man who brought Auburn into the project. Over the years, Purcell has contracted with Auburn 's Industrial Design department to create everything from merchandise display systems to fertilizer spreaders. Not long ago he sold his family owned fertilizer business to a larger company in St. Louis . A business associate in Missouri is raising money to build the handicap accessible park. Purcell says he's grateful for the students' dedication to helping kids. "We were trying to raise money for this playground," said Purcell, "And we said, 'hey lets use the good talents of these students here at Auburn '...to see if we could have the same good luck we've had with other commercial products. It's been great."

Many of the items the students designed can be used by able bodied youngsters, too. That makes it more attractive to manufacturers – because it appeals to a wider cross-section of buyers and cuts the costs, too.

So the next time you see a specialized piece of equipment for handicapped kids...it may very well be have had its origin on the plains of Auburn.