"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.
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