Inclusive Play: Sharing the Joy of Play

Mary's Magical Place in Hendersonville, Tenn.


Mary McAuley made a lasting impression on her Hendersonville, Tenn., community. She was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was wheelchair-bound, non-verbal, used a feeding tube and couldn't control her arms. But as Mary's mother Rachel tells us, she loved everyone and had a magical smile. "The one motor skill that was not damaged and the only disease that was contagious was her smile." Mary passed away in 2015 at the age of 14.

Mary swam, biked and ran with special equipment. She travelled, went camping and attended sporting events. But looking at pictures of Mary shortly after she passed, a neighbor of the McAuley's, Carol Ernst, was struck with the thought that Mary never got to experience the simple joy of a playground, and the seed for Mary's Magical Place (MMP) was planted. "My goal was to provide a playground that Mary could've played at with her brothers, because that story was probably the same for so many families—one could play and not the other," said Ernst.

Ernst recruited Mary's mother and two other neighbors for help, and began researching playground equipment. They visited 27 playgrounds in nine states. "Through that we really became educated in play."

Ernst quickly learned that while many playgrounds are considered accessible, they're not truly inclusive. Ultimately, they chose Landscape Structures as their equipment manufacturer.

The city of Hendersonville agreed to donate land in Veterans Park and contribute $130,000. Benchmark Construction made an in-kind donation of more than $80,000, completing the excavating, drainage and grading, according to Ernst. "They also knew Mary, so it was really a community project." Ernst then solicited more in-kind donations, eventually getting the walks, concrete, gravel, pavers and donor plaques donated.


As for raising funds, Ernst said they made it up as they went, explaining how her father-in-law allowed groups to tour his collection of classic cars. "We charged $10 a person. That was our kickoff event, and it created awareness about the project." Various groups held fundraisers, such as women's clubs, childcare centers, and Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. Kids ran lemonade stands and filled piggy banks.

The four volunteers increased to 11, taking charge of writing grants, hospitality, social media and selling bricks and pavers. "We had an event chairperson and a fundraising chairperson," said Ernst. "We started out looking to build a $500,000 playground that's 11,000 square feet, and we ended up building an almost 16,000-square-foot playground, and it was $1.3 million."

Shelia Stewart is a managing principal at Recreational Concepts, which works in the planning and construction of parks and playgrounds. She said that working with the MMP volunteers was amazing, and she'd never seen such a vision and commitment to completing a project. "The MMP committee never took no for an answer, and their enthusiasm was and still is non-capped!"

Ernst explained that they wanted to take the playground up higher than just one level. "These kids live on one plane; a lot of them don't have the opportunity to be able to climb. We wanted that person to be able to push or pull their wheelchair through the whole structure." She said their goal was to have three pieces of equipment that users could enjoy without being transferred from their wheelchair. They decided on a glider, the Liberty Swing from Australia and the "Mary"-Go-Round—the first one made in the United States.

"The goal of an inclusive playground is so that all children can have fun, learn and engage with each other," said Stewart, explaining that there should be no "exclusions." She describes other inclusive features at MMP, including the We-Saw, the Omni Spinner and the Oodle Swing. "All of the equipment in the design plays roles in meeting factors for the special needs spectrum."


There's also a communication board for non-verbal people, and a roller slide and roller table for those with cochlear implants. There's accessible musical instruments and elements for the visually-impaired, hearing-impaired and those with autism. "The goal is to have people with special needs playing alongside able-bodied people," said Ernst, "and those able-bodied kids become more compassionate."

Emphasis was put on providing a lot of shade, since some users are extra-sensitive to heat and sun due to health conditions and medication sensitivity. No Fault Sport Group provided ADA-compliant poured-in-place rubber surfacing that wheelchairs can easily access and roll across since it's a seamless surface.

Lose Design was the project architect, and Lose project manager John Sexton described functional areas of the playground, such as the ramp to the upper ADA-access point on the main play feature. "This ramp provides access to persons that are restricted to wheelchairs to play with other children on the feature, which in most cases would be off-limits." He said this also allows kids the ability to run, slide and roll up and down the sides of the ramp on their own.

Since opening in September 2018, Ernst has observed many beaming kids and adults enjoying Mary's Magical Place, including parents with disabilities who can finally bring their kids to a playground. "We say that Mary's smile is living out there on that playground because these other children are getting to smile and experience something that otherwise they may never have."



Mary's Magical Place:
Landscape Structures:
No Fault Sport Group: