Feature Article - January 2013
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Let's Play Together!

How Inclusive Playgrounds Benefit Everyone

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Building Is Not Enough

Although planning, educating, fundraising and finally installing an inclusive playground is a major effort—and a major achievement—it's likely not the end of the road if true inclusivity is your goal.

Shane's Inspiration's Harris recalls the fun they had selecting benches for the first playground they built and the way they daydreamed about watching all the children play together from those benches. But when their playground opened, "we were shocked by the minimal use by kids with disabilities," she said. Instead, they won lots of awards for being a fantastic place to play, and the place was overrun by typically developing children. When they went into the community to find out why, they discovered many families with children with disabilities didn't come because they worried about ridicule if their children were the only ones there who were different.

In response, Shane's Inspiration added two programs. My Play Club creates an organized day at the park—with games, face painting and goody bags—and is open to all children in the community. At the Los Angeles playgrounds, My Play Club is the last Saturday of each month, and the prizes and entertainment are sponsored by different corporate or civic groups. Saturday is the day the playgrounds see the heaviest use, and the Play Club makes sure families that include children with disabilities feel comfortable there, as they know they won't be the only ones, and they know there's some extra structure in place to help everyone play together and learn about each other.

The second program, Together We Are Able, is a full-curriculum educational program for schools. The other thing Shane's Inspiration discovered as they spent time talking with people about their inclusive playgrounds is a shocking level of bias and misinformation about people with disabilities. This program aims to break down those barriers by providing fourth through sixth graders (and soon younger students, too) an opportunity to talk about their feelings and fears, learn about people with special needs throughout the school year, and take a field trip to an inclusive playground where they're paired with a buddy for the day, who is a child with a disability. What begins with fear and nervousness ends in playing and laughing and sharing lunch, Harris said, and she hopes the experience changes these children's perspectives permanently. The program is "really a wonderful bridge and an opportunity to walk children across it," she added. "The playground is the vehicle to implement programming and make a real impact for inclusivity."

Waldbaum added that some education and insight for students has also been a big help in making the Sycolin Creek Elementary playground truly inclusive. Before the playground opened, two concerned special education teachers worked with students to create videos that explain the rules of the playground, offer guidelines for interacting with special needs students, and show everyone the ways to stay safe. The whole school watched them before going out to play, and now teachers can use them in their classrooms whenever a refresher is needed.

Benefits Abound

Once you've gotten the community on board and created one playground, you may find yourself on a roll. "When you do it right and are not afraid to tell the community from the beginning about the work they need to do, the energy behind the movement just blasts out," Harris said.

KaBOOM!'s Flannigan agreed. "[A playground project can be] a catalyst for change in the rest of the community," he said. "When people come together to build playground, it's a tangible, collective accomplishment. Then they wonder, 'What else can we do?'"

Whatever the extra effort involved, an inclusive playground project is worth it. Not only does it make play possible for the whole community—children with disabilities, adults with disabilities or diseases like multiple sclerosis, older adults with physical challenges, veterans who come home with an injury—it promotes a shift in perspective. "[An inclusive playground] shows that everyone has value," Schulze said. "It teaches children that everyone can be together. When kids are able to play and see a child in a wheelchair having fun, to see what they can do, it changes their perception." This type of interaction moves feelings from pity to understanding, she added. "Then it makes a better world."