Inclusive Playgrounds Matter for ALL Kids

Playgrounds are almost synonymous with childhood in America. Every school has them, and most towns and many parks incorporate playgrounds into their design. Playgrounds are a way to foster community, with options for children from toddlers to middle school. They allow us to come together and yet to also move at our own pace. As a result, playgrounds are great for kids not only of all ages but also of all abilities. Our daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome, struggles to keep up on a soccer field, but with playgrounds she can go at her own pace and she can choose the options that feel safe.

Still, like many structures within contemporary American life, playground designers often neglect to consider the needs of kids with disabilities. Thankfully, some new playgrounds are beginning to design their structures with all kinds of kids in mind.

A few weeks ago, Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto, California, celebrated its grand opening. Magical Bridge is not the first of its kind, although it claims to be the most innovative in its design. It stands as a sign of the opportunities that open up for all kids—those with autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disabilities, those who use wheelchairs or walk with canes, those who have no discernible disabilities—in a space designed to include everyone.

Penny's particular disabilities don't necessitate an accessible playground, and yet these strides matter to our family, and to every family, whether their kids have disabilities or not. The first time we took Penny to an inclusive playground, our kids didn't notice the ramps designed to hold wheelchairs or the swings designed to support kids with low muscle tone. They just had fun. But as a parent, I noticed that this space had been designed with a desire to include our family. Playgrounds are places that build community. They are also places where kids of differing abilities can experience success.

For two years now, Penny has wanted to be able to do the monkey bars all by herself. Monkey bars require upper body strength, coordination, and some measure of courage. For Penny they pose an even greater challenge than for a typical kid. Her low muscle tone makes it harder to build up strength. Her small stature and tiny hands make it harder to grip the bars. But on playground after playground, she seeks out the monkey bars. Years ago we stopped holding her legs. For many seasons now, she has just hung in the air, legs pumping, and then dropped to the ground. But finally, last week, all of a sudden, she worked her way across those bars. Again and again and again.

What made the moment especially sweet was that her friend from school was there to celebrate the accomplishment. Their differing abilities make it challenging for them to play sports together, but they can share the fun of a playground.

The Magical Bridge playground includes a 2-story wheelchair accessible theater and playhouse, retreat spaces for kids who get over-stimulated from a traditional playground experience, a host of swings and spinning devices, and a variety of musical experiences for kids who express and enjoy themselves more fully through music. But more important than the specific elements of this playground is the intention behind it, an intention to welcome every member of the community. At the playground we visited years ago, and at these new inclusive playgrounds, the ramps and swings stand out like big WELCOME signs. You belong here. We want you to come and play.

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