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Changing the World, One Playground at a Time
By: Ian Proud

In an ideal world, all playgrounds would be useable and enjoyed by everyone. No one would be excluded from the joy of playing outdoors with others because of any physical or developmental disability.

This simple idea is at the heart of inclusive play. By definition, inclusive playgrounds are universally designed, barrier-free play spaces that meet the needs of the widest range of users by creating a comparable, integrated experience for everyone who uses the play area.

The concept of inclusive play is consistent with the principle of "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you." Play areas need to welcome all people.

Uniting the Community
Building an inclusive playground presents an opportunity for church leaders and members to clearly demonstrate their values to the community at large, and also show care and compassion for people who traditionally have been marginalized by society essentially the parable of the Good Samaritan in action in today's world.

For example, disabled veterans who return from service as wheelchair users will be able to take their children to an inclusive playground. Providing an inclusive play space shows respect to returning soldiers who have fought on behalf of the country and enables them to have fun with their families again. 

Inclusive playgrounds also meet the needs of aging family members and neighbors. Demographic shifts mean grandparents will increasingly have childcare responsibilities, so it is imperative that all ages are welcomed to the playground.

Encouraging and enabling intergenerational outdoor activity has the power to connect communities and enrich lives.

Just because people with disabilities aren't visible in the community doesn't mean they aren't present. Many stay hidden behind closed doors because the traditionally built environment doesn't welcome them.

To put the situation in perspective, one in five people are living with chronic illness or disability, and 13 percent of children 6 to 14 have a disability.

An inclusive playground building project is a community-based action program with the potential to not only change the world but the worldview of all participants church-goers and non-church-goers alike.

Building an inclusive playground promotes interaction, mutual tolerance, and acceptance among the entire community. It is demonstrated social action that can drive membership growth as people see the church advocating for something meaningful to the community.

The process of planning for the playground and learning about the importance of inclusion has the power to educate, change attitudes, and build fellowship.

Involving the community in the fundraising, designing and building will generate a sense of ownership and involvement that may not result from a third-party contracted installation.

Why Build a Playground?
Rather than being a trivial aspect of life, play is essential for developing a sense of equality, connectedness and concern for others. By benefiting every aspect of wellness, play improves the quality of life for the entire community. From infancy to adulthood, play is vital to physical fitness, cognitive health, and emotional well-being.

For children, play areas are places to get active outdoors, exercise their bodies and imaginations, solve problems, challenge limits, and interact socially with others. Children who develop stable relationships with other children through early play become more competent over time and have fewer difficulties than children who don't cultivate those relationships.

The mutual play that children engage in is the basic state of friendship that sustains people throughout their lives. Free play benefits all children equally, without the team pressures, physical preferences, or singling out that may come with other activities.

Play builds strong family bonds and healthy communities by encouraging the open expression of feelings. Children develop essential social skills from parents, guardians and other adult caregivers who play with them in ways that emphasize equality. Through balanced, responsive play with a caregiver, children learn the skills required to be socially competent citizens.

When caregivers are responsive to children's ideas during play interactions, children feel confident of their ability to be good play partners and subsequently become more eager to play with their peers.

Such positive, balanced play has been found to encourage children to have a positive outlook toward others and look forward to play opportunities with others.

The benefits of play to society as a whole are well-documented. In a 2007 study, five-year-olds who had limited outdoor playtime exhibited poorer social, behavioral, and motor skills and had fewer playmates than children not so limited.

Play in a diverse natural environment may also reduce or eliminate bullying. Rough-and-tumble play has been found to be necessary for the development of social awareness, cooperation, fairness and altruism.

Building an Inclusive Playground
Some points to consider when planning an inclusive playground include:

 Understand the basic American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for playgrounds, but note that the ADA is focused on and limited to people in wheelchairs. There are many more people with other disabilities. Familiarize yourself with all disabilities and their predominance in our communities. An excellent resource is the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs' Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

 Involve the entire community congregants and non-church-goers alike, those with disabilities and without in the planning, designing and building.

 Set a budget.

 Consult with a trusted playground design specialist.

Many playground designs are based on the notion that ramps are the answer because they meet the ADA requirement that playgrounds be easy for people in wheelchairs to approach, enter and move through.

However, being accessible doesn't necessarily mean the equipment offers the best possible play experience. Adding elements such as a ramp here or a level path there may help meet the letter of the law, but it doesn't fulfill its intent of welcoming everyone, regardless of their ability. That is because the ADA law is just a starting point in the journey to accept and provide challenging play experiences for everyone.

Recently, a committee of play and child development experts developed the Inclusive Play Design Guide, a free tool to help advocates design outdoor spaces for people of all ages (kids, parents and grandparents) and all abilities (autistic, able-bodied and those with a cognitive disability). 

The Inclusive Play Design Guide is focused on five key areas:

 Planning and preparation
 Selecting equipment
 Play richness

Creating a space where people of every age and ability gather and play can truly change the world. Building an inclusive playground brings the community together and generates opportunities for life-enriching interactions.

More than simply a recreational amenity, an inclusive, universally designed play area will increase people's acceptance of others who may not be like them, further the church's mission, and generate goodwill for years to come.

Ian Proud is research manager for Playworld Systems Inc., www.PlayworldSystems.com. Visit their website to download a copy of their Inclusive Play Design Guide.

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