Leaps & Bounds

A shift in community development allows special needs and typical kids to play together.

You can’t imagine the look on the face of my son Nicholas when he heard his school won a Boundless™ Playground.

Five months ago, I submitted an essay to a national contest with a teacher from my son’s school. The topic: why McCullough Elementary School and the Penn-Trafford School District in Pennsylvania deserved a Boundless Playground. As the parent of a child with special needs, I have seen firsthand the struggle for children with disabilities to fit in with classmates, participate in school activities and play on a playground not accessible for all children. Our pre-existing school playground wasn’t that great. And when we heard about this opportunity for a community to win a universally-accessible, Boundless Playground worth up to $300,000, we knew we had to try to win this— not only for my son, but for the dozens of other special needs children who come to our school each day and live in our community.

Now that we’ve won this playground, children with and without disabilities have the opportunity to come together and play side-by-side in our community.

More than six million children in the United States have some type of disability that makes it hard or impossible for them to play on a traditional playground. And though there are now more than 100 Boundless Playgrounds across the country, there are still many communities with no playgrounds, much less universally-accessible playgrounds.

Boundless Playgrounds are different from traditional playgrounds because they are barrier-free and are configured to support children’s predictable play behaviors. At these playgrounds, all children can climb to the highest place, slide down the slide, swing on the swing and maneuver around the equipment— regardless if they are in a wheelchair, use a walker or need some assistance.

Because PLAYSKOOL, GameTime and Boundless Playgrounds have hosted this contest, our school’s students, our community and my son may all play together. More than 900 essays were submitted by communities around the nation, highlighting the overwhelming need and desire to have playgrounds that are accessible for children to play without restriction, today and for years to come.

Jenny Winter, a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) mother, saw the article featuring the Boundless Playgrounds contest in a magazine. Our PTO had already begun fundraising discussions about such a playground, because we were in desperate need of a new play place for our children at McCullough Elementary. My son’s 3rd grade teacher Scott Mickey asked me to collaborate with him to write an essay about Nicholas and his friends. Of course I agreed.

We focused on how our school does a great job with the “learning for all philosophy” in the inclusion classroom. However, when the students go outside to play on the playground, the school does not continue the same philosophy. Nicholas loves to run and play tag, but the mulch on the school’s pre-existing playground, coupled with my son’s gross motor skills issues, prevents Nicholas from running with ease. He never catches the other kids; he’s always last. Writing the essay with Scott Mickey made me realize how difficult it was for some children to interact on the playground.

As soon as we were notified that we had been selected as a finalist for the contest, Mr. Mickey recognized that we needed to involve the children and community. It was amazing to see each child want to be a part of the development process in hopes of creating an all-inclusive playground of the future. The younger children colored personal coloring pages; the older children wrote essays explaining what they would do on a Boundless Playground. Their ideas were inspirational. We witnessed how much these kids truly cared about their friends who struggle on traditional playgrounds.

Our community also rallied around the possibility of a Boundless Playground with open arms. The collective response was “How can we help?” The kids, teachers, parents, school district members, community leaders and business owners united to show our region’s need for an unfettered place of play.

The day that contest officials declared we had been selected as the Grand Prize winners, the expressions and reactions of the children were priceless. For me, it was overwhelming to see my daughter Natasha pumping her arms and screaming in excitement and Nicholas grasping his Mr. Potato Head doll while trying to hug me. He kept saying, “I knew we were going to win, Mama.” Oh to be so young and full of faith.

This summer, the playground was built. Before the construction phase, Nicholas revealed how he couldn’t wait to run on the new surfaces of the playground and play tag with his friends. We remind the children that they did this together. They were the most important part of the process. We worked together as a team, and I still cannot believe we won.

Mr. Mickey has a saying that he tells his students: “You never know what you can do until you try.” Now the kids at McCullough Elementary have experienced what is possible if you believe, you try and you commit yourself to improving your community for everyone.