Supplement Feature - April 2011
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Common Grounds

Inclusive Play on the Upswing

By Wynn St. Clair

Likewise, there are many important things that children derive from free play that cannot be seen on the surface. One of these is a child's emotional development. Research has pointed to three areas where play helps children develop: building self-confidence, releasing emotions from trauma and experimenting with various emotions.

But, more than anything else, inclusive playgrounds provide children—especially those who are often segregated from their peers—a chance to improve their social skills by playing with others. Studies show that while playing in groups, kids learn social roles and cultural rules, develop appropriate cooperation skills, and learn a shared system of symbols, including verbal and body language. When children develop and test relationships, they learn self-control, compromise and negotiation skills. Kids also learn survival skills, independence and acceptable group activities to build on as they grow up, experts say.

Those were the benefits officials in Dothan, Ala., wanted to offer when they opened their Miracle Playground last year. The project was an offshoot of the town's Miracle Field, a baseball diamond where mentally and physically challenged residents could enjoy America's pastime. The field serves an entire community because its rubber surface allows it to be used by both the local baseball program and kids who use wheelchairs and crutches.

The ballpark was so successful, officials decided to extend the universal recreation philosophy to a new playground. Money, however, threatened to become an obstacle. The field project, which also included another park, had cost about $1.1 million, with a significant amount donated by the local Rotary Club. It felt too awkward to go back to the generous civic organization to ask for more money.

"Fortunately, they were one step ahead of us," said Kim Meeker, assistant director of operations for the Dothan Department of Leisure. "They called me and asked me to do the research on what it would take and to bring them this latest funding opportunity."

The city soon formed a committee that included parents of kids with disabilities and special education teachers. Meeker also researched the issue heavily, calling around to learn everything he could about universal playgrounds. After studying the issue for about six months, they came up with a plan and set about raising the $600,000 needed to build it.

"One thing I learned is that, in general, kids like to be high, especially kids in wheelchairs because they're so used to being low to the ground," Meeker said. "Our goal was to get the kids as high as possible, which was quite a challenge. The problem was that ramps can only be so steep. Also, the more ramps you have, the more expensive it was going to be. We ended up building up the land and built up berms on the sidewalk. The kids are already three feet high when they get up to the playground itself."