Harper’s Playground Research

Radically Inclusive Play

By Heidi Hinshaw


I was hired as a graduate research fellow by Willamette Partnership with funding from the Lora L. & Martin N. Kelley Family Foundation to work with our community partner, Harper’s Playground. My task was to help make the case for inclusive playgrounds and ultimately all public spaces. So, over the past three months, I have read about, visited, and played at playgrounds. I listened to webinars, interviewed experts, and otherwise thought a lot about playgrounds. Through these experiences, I’ve come to understand the importance of radical inclusivity: when we design public spaces for those who have historically been left out of mainstream design, we end up with places that are better for everyone

There is a lot of excitement and scholarship currently happening on how to best build play environments. The next step is to communicate the importance of funding bold, radically inclusive design to those that write budgets for public playgrounds. As communities update and improve aging infrastructure, we need to make the case for incorporating better practices. To this end, I researched methods of communicating the value that great play environments provide. I learned that there have been some terrific advances in the concept of Social Return on Investment (SROI) and in this report, I outline how Harper’s Playground could complete a participatory SROI in the future. I hope they do so.

Harper’s Playground’s niche is radically inclusive nature play: they help communities build parks that incorporate natural infrastructure and landscaping with features that everyone can enjoy – on feet or wheels, whether old and young, neurotypical or divergent. The ripple effect of this type of community-engaged design is profound. An SROI analysis could specify this effect without hyperbole, but my argument is that by building these parks with communities, the Harper’s Playground team is building stronger, more resilient, environmentally just, and safe communities that have more fun together. 

I presented my work to Willamette Partnership staff in August 2021.  In the spirit of participatory reporting, this blog incorporates some of their responses to my discussion prompts. I invite you to consider each of the following questions for yourself.

Harper’s Playground at Gateway Discovery Park, Portland, OR. Photo by Heidi Hinshaw.

A study of Harper’s Playground

– How to measure & communicate value
– What makes Harper’s Playground special?

1. Radical inclusivity
2. Nature + universal design
3. Designed with community

What can radical inclusivity mean to a community? 

“What does radical inclusivity mean to you?”

Answers from WP staff

  • Anybody can play wherever they want! 
  • Changing status quo/changing what is play & what is community 
  • Moving beyond accessibility
  • Welcoming
  • Not just about liability (so much more than avoiding litigation) 
  • Person-based 
  • Makes you feel like an equal part & owner in this space
  • Equity over equal access
Photo provided by Harper's Playground

Harper’s Playground at Arbor Lodge Opening Ceremony. Photo by Harper’s Playground.

“What do you see in this picture?”

  • Lots of different age groups
  • Diversity in ability
  • Not so much diversity of race/ethnicity 
  • A LOT of people
  • Very engaged adults

How does exposure to nature improve quality of life?

Harper’s Playground at Gateway Discovery Park, Portland, OR. Photo by Heidi Hinshaw.

“How does it improve your life?”

Answers from author: Breathing cleaner air feels good in my lungs. Nature helps me feel grounded and capable. Natural beauty sparks joy. Rocks and trees are fun to climb.

How about you?

How can we measure the value of a space?

How do we make the case for comprehensive, radically inclusive design?

First, I thought about ‘what is the best way to measure value?’ I studied life-cycle analyses, cost/benefit analyses and finally, participatory social return on investment (SROI) analyses—which I determined to be the best evaluation technique for this type of project.

Second, I looked at what SROIs look like in practice and found that the best examples are stakeholder-driven.

How could this strategy be applied for Harper’s Playground? It would take a commitment of time and robust community engagement that ideally involves multiple communities to understand various types of community-driven values. At this point, I wrote a how-to guide for Harper’s Playground  to use at a later time in a report titled:

“A study of how a participatory SROI analysis could measure intangibles to make the case for Harper’s Playgrounds in more communities everywhere.”

Deliverable: Outcomes Table

As a team, we narrowed down a preliminary list of the most important outcomes that are derived from a radically inclusive play space for staff to use now. We identified 6 critical categories of outcomes.

  1. Lifecycle of materials
  2. Health and Safety
  3. Social Capital
  4. Environment
  5. Radical inclusivity
  6. Workforce investment

Within each category, we determined more specific outcomes, indicators that those outcomes were occurring, and methods for how to measure them. 

We delivered this detailed, modifiable, and expandable table to Harper’s Playground for their use.

Next Steps

Photo by Harper’s Playground.

The Willamette Partnership team will create a data visualization of this outcome table in picture form. A brainstorming session with the whole WP team determined the following goals for this design: 

  • Capture the complexity 
  • All positive effects/how a great place can impact a community, 
  • Include pictures to make it human/organic, 
  • Center the community aspect of compassion, 
  • Draw inspiration from the public health world, 
  • Tell the story and back it up with complete data, 
  • Include (simplified explanations of) data collection methods, 
  • The cyclical nature of outcomes is super important – tell the holistic story, show any overlap or links and connections between outcomes.

Lessons Learned

I learned SO MUCH in the past few months and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to not only do this research but to shadow an organization that lives up to its ideals in many real ways. Willamette Partnership staff welcomed me into their staff meetings, strategic planning sessions, teach-ins with tribal leaders, and weekly morning huddles. I shared jokes and song recommendations on our Slack channels and got career advice from Executive Director, Sara O’Brien. I now understand WHY internships/fellowships are SO important to emerging professionals. I felt valued, nurtured, and respected. I learned about how a healthy organization filled with passionate people can operate effectively. Our community partners at Harper’s Playground shared wisdom, time, and feedback that not only taught me content but about how to work in partnership efficiently. 

I am now completely convinced of the imperative of comprehensively inclusive (including inclusive of nature) play space as a NEED for all communities, due to my interviews with experts, reading list, and the several webinars I attended through the American Association for Landscape Architects and the Prevention Institute. I think participatory SROI analysis shows great promise for community-engaged evaluation, and I look forward to putting the techniques I learned into practice someday.

Want a copy of Heidi’s report and findings? Contact Lynny Brown.

Lynny Brown (she/her) works to improve health by connecting people to the outdoors. Taking a strength-based and relationship-based approach to partnerships, Lynny works on projects that lie at the intersection of health and the environment. Over the past year, Lynny has worked with the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative on the Outdoor Preschool project.


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