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This post provides an overview of Council Bluffs’ community efforts to update and enhance a playground at Lake Manawa State Park with a focus on all-inclusive play and ADA compliance.

Revitalizing a Community Treasure

Council Bluffs is now home to the largest public ADA accessible playground in the state of Iowa featuring a variety of all-inclusive equipment geared toward different development levels and physical abilities. Through extensive community input and collaboration, the Council Bluffs’ Dream Playground Re-Imagined project successfully revitalized a park originally built in August 1993.

“This unique project began 25 years ago and is entirely built and fundraised by the Council Bluffs’ community,” shares Elizabeth Hunter, PE, AICP, of Snyder & Associates, Council Bluffs. “With a focus on expanding all-inclusive play opportunities and increasing playground safety, the Council Bluffs’ community is coming together to give it a 21-st century update.”


Rendering of children running around a playground.

At-grade equipment provides easy access for all users.

Located in Lake Manawa State Park, the original playground structure was made primarily of wood, which has deteriorated over time creating safety hazards. A sand surface covering the majority of the playground and outdated equipment limited accessibility for individuals with mobility challenges. Recognizing the playground had exceeded its design life and fell short of meeting the community’s needs, plans to rebuild were announced in November 2016.

“Maintenance and repairs were no longer sufficient,” says Hunter. “Technology has changed drastically since the park was built. The materials and equipment we use today are more durable and easier to maintain. They’re also geared towards different age groups and physical abilities to encourage all-inclusive play.”

Supporting All-Inclusive Play & Social Equality

Completed in October 2018, the new playground is 18,000 square feet in size, which is 30 percent larger than the previous structure. It has a mix of rubber and wood fiber surfaces to expand accessibility and safety, along with at-grade equipment to allow easy access for all users. Playground equipment and layout were chosen with three core age groups in mind:

  • Baby Play Area (0-2 years)
    Rubberized surfaces with accessible benches, conga drums, a shaded area, and more.
  • Pre-School Playground (2-5 years)
    Accessible ramps, bridges, swings, activity panels (abacus, alphabet, tick-tac-toe), a sandbox, and railroad jungle gym.
  • School-Age Playground (5-12 years)
    Accessible telescope, gymnastic and monkey bars, activity panels (maze, sign language, clock, braille, etc.), swings, instruments, see-saw, slides, a merry-go-round, and more.
A group photo of young volunteers that assisted with the Council Bluffs Dream Playground Reimagined.

The Iowa Western Community College Cheer Team poses for a group photo while volunteering during playground construction.

Hunter notes that all-inclusive experiences, such as those fostered by the Dream Playground Re-Imagined and Ames Miracle League Field, are an essential component of social equality and community livability.

“All-inclusive play brings people together,” she states. “It allows us to break down the barriers and stigma that separate us. After all, we’re more alike than different and inclusive play brings that to light for children as well as adults.”

Local Children Guide Playground Design

As the name implies, Council Bluffs’ Dream Playground was inspired by the dreams and desires of children in the community. To “re-imagine” the park, Council Bluffs turned to community youth once again in 2017 with over 1,700 children submitting drawings of their dream playground.

Inspired by the children’s drawings and the area’s rich history, the final design was created by Play by Design and presented to the public in April 2017. It honors important historical components such as the Union Pacific Railroad and the Lewis & Clark trail, which guided early pioneers through the area. In addition, iconic, pointed rooftops of elevated structures on the original playground are being restored and reused as a way of paying homage to children that contributed to the project in 1993.

Leadership Council Bluffs Class 30 Champions Project Development

Image of a concrete path leading to handicap accessible playground equipment at the Council Bluffs Dream Playground Reimagined.

A concrete path leading to playground equipment accommodates individuals with mobility challenges.

Council Bluffs’ Dream Playground was made entirely possible through the generous support and assistance of community volunteers. Recognizing the renewed need for community participation, Class 30 of Leadership Council Bluffs adopted the Dream Playground Re-Imagined as its Community Trustee Project. With each member of the class serving on one of eight project committees, everyone was able to participate in a way that utilizes their personal and professional strengths.

“Each member of the class brings different strengths to the team,” says Hunter, member of Leadership Council Bluffs Class 30 and chair of the Dream Playground Re-Imagined Volunteer Committee.

As a team member, Hunter spearheaded one of the most critical components of the project, while utilizing her professional skills and experience.

“My experience with project construction and civil engineering helped guide project development,” she shares. “As chair, I helped rally community support, which is a detail-oriented challenge requiring significant organization. I wanted to have an impact, and this position allowed me to use my strengths and expertise in a way that will positively impact the community long-term.”

Volunteers & Fundraising Guide Project Success

Construction of the new playground was scheduled to occur in two phases, but due to weather-related delays and volunteer availability, a third phase was added.

  • Phase 1 — Placement of playground posts and preliminary work to prepare playground equipment assembly.
  • Phase 2 — Partial assembly of playground equipment.
  • Phase 3 — Finished construction and assembly of playground equipment, along with surfacing, fence construction, grading, and mulching.

Volunteer recruitment and fundraising were essential components of project success.

“From checking-in volunteers to working the food tent and assisting with the building and assembly of materials, there was an opportunity for everyone regardless of skill level,” she states. “Overall, we estimate that about 1,700 volunteers came out to help complete the project during the course of all three phases.”

Playground construction was set up in an assembly line format with specific tents for equipment, building, and assembly. A children’s activity tent provided a safe, supervised place for children to play while their parents volunteered.

A group photo of the team that worked on the Council Bluffs Dream Playground Reimagined project.

Members of the Council Bluffs’ Dream Playground Re-Imagined project team (left to right): Justin James, Council Bluffs Fire Chief; Barry Cleaveland, Director of Research & Development at the Silverstone Group; Lynne Branigan, Owner of BEX Oil; Elizabeth Hunter, Civil Engineer & Planner for Snyder & Associates; Jacob Irlmeier, Land Surveyor for Snyder & Associates; Tarron Meaike, Land Surveyor for Snyder & Associates; Mike Geier, Business Unit Leader for Snyder & Associates

Barry Cleaveland, a member of the Dream Playground Steering Committee and head of fundraising for the project, estimates that the combined value of cash donations, in-kind services, and volunteer hours exceeds $1.3 million.

After two years of planning and hard work on behalf of Leadership Council Bluffs Class 30 and community volunteers, a grand opening and ribbon-cutting celebration took place on Sunday, October 28, 2018. During the event, leftover supplies and building materials, along with birdhouses built from scrap wood and playground composite, were sold during a silent auction that raised approximately $1,700 for an endowment fund for future maintenance.

As a result of the project, Hunter says several volunteers have expressed a desire to continue working together in the future on additional community-based projects, including one to create a new trailhead for an existing trail in the area.

“I think the most rewarding aspect of this whole experience was getting to meet so many community members that I may not have otherwise had the opportunity to meet,” concludes Hunter. “Council Bluffs is home to so many people that are committed to bettering the community through acts of service. It’s been a joy to see this project through and collaborate with the community.”

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