Play is the birthright of all children. It is through play that all children—regardless of their physical, emotional or mental abilities—decode the world and learn. Play has been shown to improve social and language skills, physical and mental health and decrease stress. These reasons are why access to safe places to play is critical for all children today.
Imagine being the parent of a child with limited abilities, or physical or emotional needs; these can make a trip to the local playground near impossible. For a child in a wheelchair, the playground is typically a place to get sunshine, fresh air and watch other children play. For a sight-impaired child, a typical playground is fraught with potential dangers. And for a child with autism, it can be complicated and even unsafe, possibly causing the fight-or-flight instinct to kick in.
In the 2010 United States Census, it was estimated that 12 percent of the population has a severe disability that affects at least one function of daily living. However, these folks live with others who care for them in their daily lives. At times, the existence can be lonely for both caregivers and people with disabilities. Inclusive play areas give both of them the opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy the sunshine as well as potentially meet others for some much-needed social interaction.
All-abilities or all-access playgrounds are popping up across the world and throughout Connecticut. Thanks to caring parents and communities, these playground are designed to ensure that children of all ages and abilities have a safe place to play. These playgrounds are designed according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines and typically use the Inclusive Play Guideline as a starting point for the creation of the play environments.
The Inclusive Play Design Guide (AccessiblePlayground.net) was developed by a group of playground and child development experts as an inspirational resource to guide the creation of outdoor play environments for people of all abilities. The team considers typically developing children; children with neurological disabilities such as autism; those with intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome; children requiring wheelchairs or medical equipment; individuals with physical disabilities and/or social/emotional difficulties; and siblings, parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers and other community members. They also take into consideration adults with disabilities; a playground is a good place for a recovering veteran to learn to use limbs again, enable stroke or Parkinson’s patients to get outdoor exercise safely, or allow adults with disabilities a judgment-free zone to play.
Inclusive playgrounds provide a space for children to connect and interact with others they might not typically meet. Play allows children to explore and communicate on their own level without the guidance and direction of adults. Inclusive play areas mean that a typically developed child can interact with an autistic child or someone with limited physical abilities. This can help build understanding and empathy for others, and allow the differently-abled child to share what they can and can’t do in terms of play. Often times, if left to their own devices, the children will figure out a perfect way for them to play with one another. Sometimes the typically developed child can be the “hands and feet” while the differently-abled child is the storyteller or “imaginer”.
When her son Adam became sick with bacterial meningitis, the last thing Kate Mlodzinski was thinking about was building him a playground. He was in the hospital for four months, two of which he was in a coma. All his family was concerned about was keeping him alive. Their Connecticut community in Tolland rallied around the family bringing meals, helping around the house and surrounding the family with love. When Adam was finally able to return home, he was a different boy. He had lost his sight and experienced up to 10 epileptic seizures a day. The 15-year old now had the abilities of a seven-year old.
One day, a friend and neighbor, Alison Knybel, mentioned that the community still wanted to help. What began as “school bus stop conversations” about building a playground for kids with disabilities turned into Adam’s Adventure, an inclusive playground in Tolland. “Alison is really the driving force behind Adam’s Adventure,” said Mlodzinski. “She took the idea and ran with it. She researched different playgrounds around Connecticut and raised the money to make it happen.”
After years of fundraising and dedication, Adam’s Adventure opened in May 2016, nearly six years after Knybel began her initial research. The all-accessible playground is wheelchair-friendly featuring sponge-like flooring to soften falls, and a roller table that allows children to pull themselves out of their chairs and along the playscape. It also features a sensory board created by three University of Connecticut students. The playground is also fenced in, making it safer for kids who have a tendency to run.
I think it’s a place where parents cannot worry about their children and watch them having fun,” remarked Mlodzinski. “The joy, laughter, running around is good for everyone. People have said that it’s easy to get to, fun and they can take their kids there for hours to play.” In fact, Adam himself recently returned to the playground named after him. He enjoyed playing on the swings and teeter-totter at a memorial service held at the playground for the co-founder Knybel who died unexpectedly this spring. “He had no idea the playground was named after him, or created because of him, but it was fun to watch him enjoy it,” his mother said.
Kids are naturally curious; play allows them to explore that curiosity in age-appropriate ways. Inclusive play areas provide the space and opportunity for all levels of ability to interact, ask questions and better understand the world around them. For instance, imagine a wheelchair-enabled child watching a veteran practice walking on prosthetic legs at the playground. It can provide education, inspiration and a long-lasting connection that neither would have found in other places. The same goes from typically developing children interacting with a child with different abilities; it might inspire them to ask to see what it is like in a wheelchair or to pretend not to have use of their legs. This not only levels the playing field but also creates empathy for others.
Susan Jacoby, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and owner of Neuropsychology Consultants, is another mother of a special needs child who was inspired to create a much-needed resource in her community. When she realized there was no real support for families going through what she was experiencing with her child, she created Devon’s Place, an all-abilities access playground in Norwalk. Situated near Stepping Stones Children’s Museum, Devon’s place is an 85 percent accessible playground in the Fairfield County area.
Remember, all-abilities play areas means these places are also perfect for able-bodied adults to “get their play on” too. Take a swing, slide the stress away and connect on a completely different level with the community.