ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Students at five Round Rock ISD schools have new playgrounds this school year, the first phase in the district’s efforts to make recess accessible to kids of all abilities.

The playgrounds, funded by 2018 bond money, are equipped with ramps instead of stairs and they’re surrounded by soft turf, which is easier to navigate in a wheelchair than the pea gravel it replaces. The entire play area is also circled by a concrete path to allow easier access to all the structures.

“None of our equipment previously allowed you to actually wheel up onto the equipment, so this is something really new for Round Rock,” said David Hoedebeck, RRISD’s director of maintenance.

Giovanni Castro uses his wheelchair for much of the school day, and the new playground at Union Hill Elementary allows him to take it onto the equipment if he wants to. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

‘Going great at the playground’

For students at Union Hill Elementary like 4th-grader Giovanni Castro, the new playground means a new way to enjoy recess. The old play area, he said, was “not wheelchair accessible. It was just, like, stairs and stuff.”

Castro can get around without his wheelchair, but he spends much of the school day in it or using a walker to give him support.

Not only was the old playground not accessible from the ground, but the structures were so narrow it would have been hard for him to navigate even if he’d been able to get his wheelchair up.

That meant recess for him was spent away from most of his friends, “just [playing] with rocks and stuff.”

Giovanni Castro holds onto parts of the new play structure as he goes from one element to the next with his friends. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

This year has been different. Friday, Castro gave KXAN a lengthy tour of the new playground, showing off the ramps, slides, monkey bars and musical instruments. He ran around with his friends playing tag a game they call “infection,” which is “like a zombie game but one person’s infected and they’re trying to get everybody,” his friend explained.

“It’s going great at the playground right now,” he said, breathing heavily as he passed by on one of the ramps.

Changes to ADA guidelines

Accessible playgrounds are still a fairly new development. The original playground at Union Hill was built with the school in the early 2000s.

“A lot has changed in 20 years,” Hoedebeck said. “People were not thinking about accessibility the same way.”

The original Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, published in 1991, set standards for a wide range of public accommodations, but did not include requirements for playgrounds.

The guidelines were updated in 2010 (with an implementation date of 2012) to require playgrounds to have a certain number of accessible elements, easy-to-navigate paths to different parts of the area and certain materials on the ground that are easier to traverse in a wheelchair.

While older playgrounds had some of those accessible paths, all five of the new ones don’t “just allow a student to get to the equipment, but to actually get on the equipment,” Hoedebeck said.

More playgrounds to come

Eleven more schools will get accessible playgrounds from the 2018 bond, but the construction likely won’t happen until the summer of 2020. The district hopes to have all 16 campuses equipped with new playgrounds by the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

That will leave 18 more schools with the older, less-accessible play areas.

“We would love to do all of them” with money in the next bond the district takes to voters, Hoedebeck said.