Power of play extends beyond swings at fully inclusive playgrounds

Published: Sunday, July 22 2012 7:41 p.m. MDT

Updated equipment allows all children to enjoy the benefits of play.

Courtesy of Mara Kaplan

The playground was not a fun place for Laurie Schulze to take her disabled daughter, Leah.

"When she was younger it felt a little overwhelming," Schulze said. "I would be with her at a playground thinking 'how is she going to do any of this?' "

As Leah grew up and moved from a stroller to a wheelchair, Schulze wondered if her daughter would ever get to truly enjoy a playground.

Schulze found her answer on a beautiful sunny day in Westerville, Ohio. She took then 12-year-old Leah to the playground again, but this time the results were much different. For mother and daughter, this day was momentous.

"It was very emotional because it wasn't just Leah playing," Schulze said. "There were other children with disabilities with their families. Just to see her jumping in and participating was so great. Words can't describe how wonderful that felt."

Leah, who participates in everything from Girl Scouts to sled hockey, is in a wheelchair because she has spina bifida. She cannot get around without the aid of a wheelchair, but on this day she was a child just like everyone else enjoying the comforts and benefits of play.

"Everything melted together and it was just amazing to see everyone playing together," Schulze said. "There were happy smiling faces everywhere. It was wonderful chaos."

This "wonderful chaos" was made possible by a universally accessible playground called Millstone Creek Park, built in Schulze's neighborhood with the intention of allowing children of all ages and learning levels and those with disabilities to enjoy the benefits of play. More than 100 facilities like Millstone exist across the country, according to experts, with more in the works. These specialized playgrounds often go beyond the ADA-required guidelines and provide all children with the experience of play that facilities camaraderie, acceptance and overall health and wellness.

Importance of inclusion

These inclusive playgrounds address the needs of all children, including those who have autism, intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other challenges. An inclusive playground accommodates all and challenges them at their own development level, according to information released in a recent report titled "Inclusive Play Design Guide."

Regardless of whether the children are in a wheelchair or have a disability such as autism, all children have a fundamental need and right to play, said Design for Play consultant and play expert JC Boushh.

"From birth until death, play is a vital part of human development," Boushh said. "For children, especially, play is how they come to understand the world around them. Play provides those things that you can't get anywhere else."

Play can even help mitigate stereotypes and biases that many adults and children have about the disabled, said Mara Kaplan, lead expert for Let Kids Play and mother of a disabled son.

"A typically developing child who's never seen a child with a disability will just start playing with them because they haven't been told that person is different or weird or strange," she said. "They just find another kid on the playground to play with and by doing so they've learned a really important lesson."

Schulze said the experiences her daughter Leah has gained on the playground have been invaluable, and she agrees that the inclusion and acceptance of those with disabilities is important for society.

"It's just the right thing to do," she said. "They need to be a part of society. There are so many people with challenges out there. You're only one car accident away."

Watching Leah play with the other children is always emotional for Schulze as she realizes the significance of childhood play.

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