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Let's Play Together!

How Inclusive Playgrounds Benefit Everyone

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 came into effect, there's been a growing focus on making parks and recreational facilities accessible. And thanks to these efforts, many, many more of them are. However, accessibility includes a whole spectrum of possibilities, and there's a big difference between something that's minimally accessible (ADA compliant), completely accessible, and truly inclusive of people with all types of abilities and challenges.

"Accessible means you can get there. It means you may be able to use parts of the playground, but inclusive means you're playing together with all of the children," explained Mara Kaplan, founder of Let Kids Play!, a consulting firm that helps playground equipment manufacturers and others understand the full needs of a community—including those with disabilities. An inclusive playground is for everyone, and because of that—although it's a bigger undertaking with more planning required and probably some programming needed as well—this type of playground is a benefit to the entire community. And in a world where play is an endangered opportunity for kids of all abilities, there's no better time to build a fantastic playground than right now!

Accessible vs. Inclusive—And Why It Matters

Shane's Inspiration was founded 14 years ago in California and originally intended to be a memorial project for Catherine Curry-Williams' and Scott Williams' son, Shane. He lived only two weeks because of severe spinal muscular atrophy, but even his short life introduced his parents to the world of children with disabilities. "They learned that among many things not accessible were playgrounds," explained Tiffany Harris, a co-founder of the organization and currently its CEO.

The Williamses were thrilled to be told Los Angeles already had accessible playgrounds, but when they went to see them, they found projects built only to ADA standards. "It's a common misconception," Harris said, adding that she believes parks and recreation departments do a terrific job. "You would assume when you meet [ADA standards] you're there. But you're not." For example, some playgrounds include features like accessible swings, but the rubber mulch surface below (which is ADA compliant) makes it impossible for a child in a wheelchair to get there.

And so began an "educational journey," during which Shane's Inspiration learned the big difference between accessible and inclusive, and along the way decided to become a partner organization to help communities build completely inclusive playgrounds, Harris said. Fourteen years later, in partnership with local communities and park districts, they've built 41 inclusive playgrounds in the United States, Canada, Mexico and beyond.

Inclusive playgrounds are "designed to be fully useable and exciting to children with a wide spectrum of abilities," Harris said. You want "typically abled kids having the most fun they can have alongside a child with maybe severe disabilities. The playground is challenging for all, and kids are able to play and engage together."

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