Advocacy has many meanings. When I think of that word, I imagine protests in the streets to build awareness or a fight to right a wrong with a certain issue. It’s a way we rise up to support people who are underserved. It’s how we support a cause to achieve a common goal for the greater good.
Parents with children who have disabilities are the strongest advocates I know. Between medical appointments, school IEPs, state rights, and down to daily interactions in the community, we advocate for inclusion, support, and compassion. A simple trip to a playground can be a battle of sorts when it’s not designed for all.
Our small town started promoting a new park project with a 10,000-square-foot playground in 2016. I was so busy between my kids’ school, my work schedule, and life I didn’t think much of the call for community comments.
The playgrounds in town were beautiful, but my daughter had a hard time playing in them. She has an intellectual disability, developmental delays, and tremors. Among her several other conditions, balance and coordination made it hard to navigate the wood chips, play structures, and swing sets. My son could play on any type of playground. They’re two kids who experience play very differently.
I read about inclusive playgrounds and how they’ve changed the landscape of communities across the nation and world. And then I saw comments on the town’s Facebook page from the people in our community asking for an inclusive playground, handicapped toys, and equipment that would help all of our kids play together. I imagined one of these playgrounds in my mind and how my daughter could play with all of her friends. Bam! The idea clicked. We needed an inclusive playground in our community. I started from that point forward.
An inclusive playground is designed with the consideration of children with all physical and developmental needs. They provide a fun, accessible play environment with physical, social, and sensory experiences for everyone. They go above and beyond the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) to meet the needs of all. Anyone can access and play on this type of playground. These playgrounds are still the exception and not the norm when it comes to play spaces although that is changing in many communities.
Here’s what I learned from my journey into inclusive play, advocacy, and partnership:
I didn’t know how something as big as an inclusive playground would happen because they’re very expensive and take community involvement. I just started showing up. At first, it was on Facebook with comments and private messages. I soon realized this type of work had to be done in person, not from behind a screen. Nervous as heck, I went to open houses, connected with town staff, and started to get the conversation going. Other moms I met online joined the conversation to support the playground.
The playground design team was receptive, excited, and had a budget. I kept showing up, calling, emailing, and connecting with people involved in the project.
Other moms shared their stories with the town about how the playground would help their families. Two moms participated with me at one of the stakeholder meetings and brought their own research ready to share. After the meeting, one of them told me she was so nervous. I told her that I was, too.
Show up, even if you’re nervous. Positive things will happen and the right people will cross your path.
I’m not a playground expert. I’m a mom and marketer. The more I researched, the more I uncovered how this was going to have such a positive impact on the community. I immersed myself in inclusive playground stories and researched my town’s special needs community.
I uncovered that almost 13% of our school district population was in special education. 13%! My daughter is one of the SPED students and all of her friends are part of this amazing group of kids. I also learned that the closest inclusive playground was about 35 minutes away and in another city.
Dive in to learn. It will build the confidence you need when it comes time to show up. Knowledge is your best power for advocacy.
Stay At It
I volunteered and advocated for the playground for about a year. Some people work on these playgrounds for several years. Stay at it. Whatever you do and no matter how hard it may seem, stay at it. Take a breath and keep going. Persistence and determination keep the forward momentum flowing. The right people will appear when you least expect it. And it’s ok to take a break if things get overwhelming. Don’t quit. Stay at it.
The park groundbreaking was in August 2017. They announced the playground was being designed for inclusion that day! The inclusive design was approved by the Town Council in November 2017. I’m so proud of this playground.
Another exciting part of this story was the grant partnership opportunity I worked on in addition to the playground design. Through some serendipitous connections, I helped coordinate the first conversations about a partnership between our town and a local medical center.
The town received a $130K grant partnership that funded the cost of the rubberized ground cover. I think of it as the “pathway to play” because that’s how everybody accesses the inclusive play equipment. Now all of our kids can play together!
The inclusive playground project was a personal journey for me. I like to get work done behind the scenes, but this type of work was the public advocacy I’m not used to doing. Each meeting, each call, and each text, I pictured my daughter and her classmates playing at the new playground with all of the other kids in the community. No barriers, just play. They were my motivation. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I’m proud of our community.
The playground opened on September 1, 2018. It was a beautiful day of celebration!
Sometimes the scariest things we do are the best for our personal growth and more importantly, we can help others. All of our kids deserve a chance to play and now they have it in our community.
Did you like this story? You might also enjoy Designed with Heart: Inclusive Playgrounds.
It was written for the 1-year anniversary of the playground opening.
“Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.” was part of the President’s farewell message in January 2017.