Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

After years of waiting, massive new Raleigh playground under construction

Posted May 24
Updated May 25

It's taken a long time, but Dionne Lester, the Raleigh mom behind the new Sassafras All Children's Playground, has a lot to celebrate.

The massive new playground, which is designed for children of all physical and mental abilities to play together, is under construction at Laurel Hills Park in north Raleigh.

A great swath of red clay is turned up as machines and crews make way for what's being described as the "biggest" playground in the city. Already, some of the equipment is installed after a community build earlier this month where nearly 200 volunteers put together climbers, handholds, slides, picnic tables and other elements. But there is much more work left to be done. A fall 2016 opening date is expected for the playground at 3808 Edwards Mill Rd.

"It's so emotional," Lester said of that build day. "It was so interesting for me to see other people's reactions, who had played a part in one way or another, that I wasn't aware of. ... You think you're working in isolation, but really, you realize that there are so many people who are teamed up with you in other ways. That's the only way it really would have happened."

The project began back in 2009 when Lester's daughter, now 15, was in prime playground age. She has cerebral palsy. A conversation between Lester's then husband and their daughter's physical therapist brought to light the lack of accessible playgrounds in Raleigh.

Kids Together in Cary has long been a popular destination for kids of abilities in the Triangle. And the original playground at Laurel Hills, called All Children's Playground, was built for that purpose as well.

All Children's, also built with community help, opened in 1991 as a place for kids of all abilities to play together regardless of their disabilities. But nearly two decades later, the playground, a favorite for many families, wasn't living up to its original purpose. The wooden structure, which had been damaged by fire, was tricky for children with physical disabilities to enjoy. Children in wheelchairs or walkers had trouble navigating the sandy surface. It also no longer met current codes.

"It was great 20 years ago, but now we have so much more information and we know so much more about how children play," Lester told me back in 2010. "We want to integrate those new ideas into the design concept."

The original playground was razed in the fall. Since then, city crews have been busy preparing the 3.5 acre site for construction.

Shawsheen Baker, Raleigh senior park planner, said that once Sassafras is complete, it will be the biggest playground in Raleigh.

"It provides really a great variety of activities just from the magnitude of the design and the structure," Baker said.

The new structure has a series of wide ramps, making it easy for kids in wheelchairs to get to even the highest point. Rubber surfacing underneath will ensure that children with mobility issues can move around from piece to piece.

Some highlights:

  • A basketball hoop that allows kids to adjust the height.
  • Two zip line-like experiences that are much longer than the traditional 10 to 12-foot experience at a typical playground. One zip line features a seat anybody can sit in. The second has a harness-like seat for children who might lack upper body strength.
  • A variety of swings - from communal swings to belt and bucket swings to swings with full support for kids who need it.
  • Standalone pieces that help kids build their strength, including roller tables where kids can lie down and pull themselves back and forth.
  • A Sway Fun, a wheelchair-accessible teeter totter.
  • Play panels, seats and other activities under the decking of the main playground.

Sassafras will incorporate traditional playground pieces (like those swings and slides), along with new playground elements that allow more creative, all-access play with rope climbers and other components.

Lester remains Sassafras' development chair. She continues to raise money for the project. The $2.3 million playground is paid for through money from a 2014 parks bond referendum and donations.

She hopes to raise another $10,000 by the time the playground opens. In the next three to five years, she's working to raise about $250,000 to build a phase two - an accessible tree top treehouse.

Sassafras is a public-private partnership between the City of Raleigh, local businesses, community groups and the Frankie Lemmon Foundation, which is the project's fiscal agent.

Lester had hoped Sassafras would become a place where her daughter could play. Her daughter is too old now. But Lester hopes the project becomes a legacy for the family and teaches lessons about patience and the importance of community work.

"This is not a playground. This is a destination park," Lester said.

After so many years of planning, she added: "It's definitely overwhelming, for sure. I'm going to be a wreck at the ribbon-cutting ceremony."

You can stay up-to-date on the latest about Sassafras on its Facebook page. If you're interested in donating, email Lester at development@sassafrasplay.org.

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