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.
"The children are able to gain confidence, meet new people, and the playground teaches tolerance at a very early age," she said. "It teaches them that everybody has value and helps children become better people. Barriers disappear."
Path to inclusion
Experts estimate right now that there are about 100 fully inclusive playgrounds across the country, but more are being planned and designed every day. Communities such as Westerville received an inclusive playground due in large part to the efforts of parents like Schulze, who successfully raised awareness and advocated change.
"I was impassioned and motivated to raise awareness about how important play is," Schulze said. "I wanted to educate people and fight for accessible play for everyone."
Although there are ADA requirements for specifications on playgrounds, meeting these requirements does not guarantee a fun or inclusive park for all.
"You have to think beyond the ADA requirements," Schulze said. "You have to think about how someone in a wheelchair would really use this."
Guidelines and standards for parks weren't always followed or enforced. Recently, the ADA updated and retooled its requirements, and a few years ago a diverse committee of experts got together to come up with better design practices for these playgrounds, Boushh said.
"The requirements are now much better defined and much more enforceable," he said. "We came up with the idea of an inclusive playground, but no one really defined it. Only now are people starting to really understand what inclusion is."
Previous playgrounds that may have been modified or updated to meet ADA guidelines were still not getting at the heart of the matter, Boushh said.
"Most kids with disabilities have been outside the scope of play," he said. "There was nothing for them to do once they got to the playground. Now, the idea is to design playgrounds that are inclusive not just for mobility impairments but also for cognitive and sensory disabilities."
The Inclusive Play Design Guide, released this year, aims to better define inclusion and provide comprehensive guidelines for effectively building and managing these playgrounds. The guide draws on experts and sources from across the country, ranging from landscape architects to parents, and provides a road map for future developers and parties interested in building an inclusive playground.
Boushh, who has lectured worldwide about the importance of play and providing all children with adequate and inclusive playgrounds, said the new guide will help communities and contractors get on the same page and allow them to have an accurate reference for future construction.
"Schools are looking harder at building these playgrounds and so are park districts," Kaplan said. "There is definitely an increased awareness that there needs to be some changes."
Inclusive play structures incorporate music, light and sensory panels, and physical activities for children of all levels and abilities. Experts say just the opportunity to be involved in some way is beneficial for children.
"There was a toy that Leah couldn't get on but she could spin it," Schulze said. "She can't fully use every piece of equipment, but at least she can participate in some way."
A new ramp for wheelchairs may seem like a great accommodation and may even be ADA compliant, but experts agree simply installing ramps to meet ADA guidelines is not what inclusive play is all about.
"A lot of times ramps are a waste of money and a waste of space," Kaplan said. "There is no play value for that ramp. There is little to do with my son once we get up that ramp, so I would rather see money spent on other features."
Accessible swings, spinning toys and sensory equipment for children with autism are effective play equipment for most children that are worth the money, Kaplan said.
Money can be spent more efficiently and effectively, Schulze said.
"I've seen people put millions of dollars into something that ends up being boring for some kids," she said. "They spent a tremendous amount of money but didn't think about the design. It is really important to talk to families in the community and choose something that everyone will enjoy."
Because universally accessible playgrounds are typically larger and more complex than traditional playgrounds, they are also more expensive.
Boushh estimated that the average cost for a normal playground is around $100,000. The average cost for everything associated with a fully inclusive playground is between $500,000 and $1 million, he said.
Fencing, surfacing, ramping and pathways all increase the cost associated with these playgrounds.
"The majority, about 75 percent of the funding, comes from outside sources," Boushh said. "Most are funded by grants and fundraisers."
The cost of these playgrounds has not deterred many community members and parents from advocating for them, however.
"There is often money from the city, park district or school," Kaplan said. "People fund-raise and raise money the way they always have. There is also a lot of support from local foundations and businesses because the playgrounds are built for the community and their needs."
Despite the financial obstacles that may prevent some communities from building these playgrounds, experts agree they are worth every penny.
"I hope there will be more in the future and that people will make conscious decisions on how to design these playgrounds," Kaplan said. "It's no fun to sit on the sidelines and watch siblings and friends play."
Schulze will not soon forget her first experience at Millstone Creek Park. She recalls the festive atmosphere with, friends and family members skipping rocks and frolicking in the wading pool. She hopes that all parents will be able to share her same joy someday.
"I am encouraged that I see more of these parks coming," Schulze said. "Millstone is just amazing because everyone can play together. Every time I drive by it makes me smile."