Touched by Olivia (TBO) was started the way many great organizations begin. A family was touched by a personal life experience that made them want to stand up and make a difference. In November 2006, John and Justine Perkins of Australia tragically lost their baby daughter Olivia, at just 8 months old, to a rare illness. In her short life, Olivia touched many hearts. It is John and Justine’s hope that Olivia will continue to touch many more lives through the work undertaken by their Foundation.
The Foundation promotes two initiatives. The first is to provide funding for Vascular Birthmarks Research and Support. The second is to create a network of inclusive playgrounds throughout Australia.
Their first playground located in Sydney opened in 2009, only three years after Olivia’s life ended. In 2010 it was awarded the Best Playspace in Australia by Parks and Leisure Australia; an award so rightly deserved.
Livvi’s Place at Five Docks in Sydney is the most well thought out inclusive playground I have ever encountered. With a goal of creating a place where all children could come and play, they paid specific attention to the needs of children with sensory and cognitive impairments in addition to the needs of children who use mobility devises. They made sure that the playground had supports for families such as restrooms and BBQs. And most importantly, they made sure it was a fun place.
To reach this goal, they involved many specialists including leading academics, play, disability, and landscape experts. They were blessed to work with Ben Richards, the landscape architect for the City of Canada Bay, which is west of Sydney.
As Bec Ho, the Executive Director of Touched by Olivia points out, “Ben Richards is an individual, someone who is passionate and intelligent and most importantly, does everything with integrity. I've been inspired by Ben's empathy and constant quest to find solutions to all design issues, no matter how small. Ben's journey with TBOF started in 2007 but continues to this day with pro bono research into inclusive play, in particular solutions for children with ASD, and ongoing support in all our endeavors. We couldn't do what we do without his generosity of spirit, knowledge and time.”
Ben’s input ensured that there are great way-finding tools at Livvi’s Place, allowing children with ASD to know where they are in the playground and when it is “safe” for them to enter the play. Ben gives a wonderful tour of the playground explaining how they addressed different design challenges. I encourage you to watch it as it is fascinating.
Network of Playspaces
As we in the States have seen with Boundless Playgrounds, Shane’s Inspiration, Unlimited Play, and others, success breeds success. Once other communities saw Livvi’s Place, they wanted one too. By 2013 there were 7 other playgrounds in the Touched by Olivia Playground Network. They expect to open another 7-10 this year with a total of 57 projects in the works throughout Australia.
Livvi’s Place inclusive playspaces provide a unique environment for children of all ages and all abilities to play side by side. Extensive research and community consultation have gone into the development of these playspaces to make them truly world class facilities. In 2012, Touched by Olivia joined with leading academics, practitioners, not for profits and NGO’s from throughout Australia to develop a best practice guideline to assist decision makers, advocates, and designers looking to create an inclusive playspace. The 6 principles of inclusive play they came up with are:
- Everyone can play
- Access to nature
- Total experience
- A connection to community
- Play independence
Using these principles, TBO developed the following key characteristics for the playgrounds in their network:
Equal Access - each playspace includes some soft fall rubber flooring, visual and audio stimulation and are configured to maximize creative, physical, social, and cognitive play.
Security and safety - totally fenced so parents have peace of mind as to the location of their children. Shaded for protection from the elements.
Facilities for older children and family get-togethers - ideally, the playspace adjoins or incorporates facilities:
- For the enjoyment of older children, such as swimming facilities, skate parks, bike tracks, and playing ovals
- To enable family BBQs and get-togethers like tables and benches and toilet facilities
- That provide ample and accessible parking
- That overall, create a family friendly environment where people choose to meet and socialize while their children play
Replicable design - the playspaces have features which can be replicated in any community park.
Bec Ho explains their mission this way, “We encourage, promote and partner with communities, corporations and governments to create a more inclusive society. TBO is pushing an intergenerational change in the way people with differences are perceived by building special places in communities that meet the needs of everyone, regardless of their age or ability.
We don’t build playgrounds for disabled kids. We are stitching communities back together and INCLUDING AND INVITING everyone to be part of the fun. If you are 1 or 100, you are equally welcomed and invited to enjoy the benefits of socializing in public spaces.”
To meet all of their goals, they are working on many projects beyond community playgrounds. They have started working with the owners and managers of shopping centers. With the help of TBO, some of these centers are redesigning their indoor playspaces in order to welcome children of many different abilities. Bec has also convinced them of the need to put adult changing tables in the shopping center restrooms.
Unless you have a school-age or older child who is still using diapers, you can’t possibly imagine how amazing this is. I have had to change my son’s diaper in some pretty awful places. Places that are not clean and do not provide any dignity to my son. I can only hope that some of the owners of Australian shopping centers, also own some in the United States and the trend for providing amenities for all will take-off here as well. TBO is working with Changing Places, a non-profit out of the UK, to promote the need for changing places for all.
Recognizing that one of the main places where children play and interact is their school, TBO has started working with local schools to create spaces that are inclusive. They have already opened one school playground and are currently in the process of developing two more. They are concentrating on ensuring that children on the autism spectrum and other children with social skill problems are able to be successful on these playgrounds.
Social Enterprise Cafes
In my mind, the most exciting project that TBO is working on is a demonstration Café at Livvi’s Place at Five Docks. If the café is a success, it will be rolled out to all of the playgrounds in their network. The café is designed to meet many needs.
It will provide:
- A needed food and drink amenity at the park
- Meaningful employment and training for people with disabilities who are interested in working in hospitality
- A space where TBO can run programs such as a school-buddy program and different types of mothers’ groups
- Staff to provide routine maintenance such as sand raking
- An on-going reliable funding source for the Playground Network
As in their playgrounds, they have been very thoughtful in their development of the café concept. Their menus will only use pictures, so that everyone can use the same menu. During “Happy Hour” when you buy a coffee, you will get a coupon for another coffee for free. You will be encouraged to give the coupon to someone else playing in the playground that you don’t know as a way of bringing people together.
Unlike most playgrounds in the United States, TBO’s playground equipment is not from one manufacturer. They work with a variety of manufacturers to bring a combination of the best and most innovative pieces together.
Some of the pieces that I wish we had more of in the United States are:
- Zip lines with adapted harnesses
- Trampolines (the most recent playground has 7 trampolines placed together, with a space in the middle for someone in a wheelchair to pull up and be in the middle of the fun).
- A water play feature that requires two people to play on a see-saw to make the water flow from above
- Merry-go-rounds that accommodate people who are using wheelchairs
- Bird Nest Swings
With all that TBO is doing, I am sure you are thinking that they must have a large staff. Well, in fact, they have one staff person and tons of incredibly motivated volunteers. Their Executive Director, Bec Ho, is their one and only paid staff person. She, along with the founders and the board of directors have changed the landscape of inclusive play in Australia. Bec is so passionate about what she is doing; she works all hours of the day—including talking with me at 10pm her time for this story. She does everything from writing grants to finger painting with politicians all while raising her own two children.
After spending an hour speaking with Bec this week, I am once again motivated to figure out how I can get to Australia to see all of the amazing playspaces they have created. I assure you that if I can get there, I will share with you even more about their innovative and successful marriage of initiative, motivation, and playspaces.