Once the speeches were over and the ribbon was cut, the children needed no invitation to take off like racers at a starting line.
When the Variety KC Playground at Tiffany Hills Park opened on June 18, children from 2 to 12 did what children do best: play.
Squeals, laughter and smiles were the order of the day at the Kansas City, North park.
There were smiles also on the faces of the people who had volunteered a month before at a community project. Those who helped create the unique playground, which serves both disabled and non-disabled children, came back to see their work in action. The June 18 event was the culmination of two years of dreams and work for an all-inclusive playground in Platte County.
The playground, on Old Tiffany Springs Road, was designed by Unlimited Play with input from Variety, the Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City.
“This is where children forget they have (special) needs,” said Deborah Wiebrecht, executive director of Variety. “This is a playground for all children. They play together and they become just Johnny or Susie. We provide special equipment, not special treatment.”
Tom Kressel spent time on opening day chasing his 3-year-old son, Brayden, who has Down syndrome. Kressel said there should be more playgrounds like the one at Tiffany Hills Park, 9400 N. Congress Ave.
“It is good to have one for all kids,” Kressel said. “(Children with disabilities) are not lumps on a log. They need to be more a part of the community. We want our child to be with all kids — interactive with all kids.”
Natalie Blakemore, founder of Unlimited Play, knows the frustration of sitting on the sidelines with a child who is excluded from play.
“We shouldn’t have to drive 15 to 20 minutes to get to a playground,” said Blakemore, whose 16-year-old son Zachary, was born with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, which affects his central nevous system and means he uses a wheelchair or assistive walking device. His physical limitation, however, does not lessen his desire to play.
When Blakemore took Zachary to available playgrounds, it only emphasized his limitations, she said. Even more frustrating, those barriers prevented him from interacting with other children — even his siblings.
Determined to provide a fun place for children like Zachary to play, but not one that excluded children without disabilities, Blakemore and her husband, Todd, created Unlimited Play. The nonprofit, based near St. Louis, was founded in 2003.
Zachary’s Playground was built in St. Louis in 2007. There are now 13 scattered throughout the Midwest.
Blakemore, who has a degree in recreation management and has served as director for Special Olympics games, knew that the standard American with Disabilities Act-compliant playground does not allow children like Zachary an opportunity to play as other children do. There are distinct differences between playgrounds, she said. Meeting the federal requirements does not ensure that people of all abilities can use a playground.
Many playgrounds have a percentage of components that are just for those with certain disabilities, said Richard Allen, with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department. This playground is 100 percent accessible to all children.
Not to mention adults who want to participate with their children.
Blakemore offers an example of an Army veteran in Waynesville, Mo., near Fort Leonard Wood. When shown a mockup of a proposed playground in his community, the veteran, who was wounded in the Middle East, was overcome with joy. Without legs, he thought he would never again be able to play with his children. The Unlimited Play playgrounds are designed so adults with mobility issues can participate.
No playground is a cookie cutter of any other, Wiebrecht said. As the major sponsor of the new playground, Variety had the naming rights and picked the themes. Variety has been providing for those with developmental disabilities in Kansas City since 1934.
“We have helped thousands of children better live up to their potential by providing them with the mobility and communication devices they need as well as opportunities for inclusion,” Wiebrecht said.
Consulting with the children with whom they work, she said, they decided that a playground section for 2- to 5-year-olds should have a mermaid theme; the 5- to 12-year-olds liked pirates.
The pirate theme was apropos, said Janice Tilman, who has served as executive director of the Platte County Board of Services for the Developmentally Disabled for 40 years.
“Park University and the Platte County R-III School district use a pirate as a mascot,” Tilman said.
Tilman’s agency was a major funder of the $612,000 playground, along with Varity. A grant from the Platte County Parks and Recreation Department and funds from the city of Kansas City also helped make the playground possible.
Kansas City donated the land and will maintain the playground, as it is adjacent to the Tiffany Hills Sports Complex.
The goal of providing truly inclusive playgrounds is being met one playground at a time. In 2010, more than 56 million people in the United States had a disability, Tilman said. In 2013, of the population with disabilities, those 17 and under accounted for just under 8 percent.
David Welborn, director of operations for Unlimited Play, has helped carefully plan out each part of the playground.
“Every piece is intentional,” Welborn said.
Children ages 2 and up seemed to find a use for every piece of equipment on opening day.
Had there been a fun meter at the playground, Olivia Bloomfield, 4, would have ratcheted it up to max. She was having no difficulty maneuvering her pink battery-operated wheelchair up and under ramps, around whales and mermaids and other children, all the while avoiding any collisions.
When asked if she had a driver’s license, her mother, Sara, responded someone had made one for her daughter, who has congenital muscular dystrophy.
Aubrey May, 10, Little Miss Wheelchair Kansas, drove more sedately. An obligation of the title is making 10 appearances, she said, and she has three more to go. Her goal is to tell people in wheelchairs that they can do what others can do.
Children of all ages discovered the sensory panels along the wheelchair ramps, and tried out the monkey bars and the climbing ropes.
Mikala Whipp saw the event publicized on Facebook and brought her three daughters from Topeka. Ivy, 2, with disabilities was having a good time, as was her sister Violet, 7. Sarah Clark, 17, who was watching the scene, hopes one day to work with disabled people.
The girls’ mom had just three words for the playground.
“This is awesome.”
▪ Ramps: serve both able bodied and those with mobility issues
▪ Colors: For children who have vision problems, bright colors can be a help. Shadow Play Trees casting their brightly colored patterns on the floors for children to play over.
▪ Slides: For children with extreme hearing problems, slides are made of metal. Children with cochlear implants should not use a plastic slide. The plastic creates static electricity which if it builds up can impact the transmitter of an implant, leaving the child in silence until an audiologist can recalibrate it.
▪ A swing has two seats facing each other and can be put in motion by the children or by an adult.
▪ Safety first: A fence adds to safety by limiting entrances to two.
▪ Touch: Sensory panels along the ramps offer wheels to turn and buttons to punch to hear water sounds like rain.
▪ Phase II of the Variety playground will bring high-back swings that provide body core support for those who need it. Before construction, $45,000 must be raised. That will also include the rubber tile ground for the playground.
▪ Future components in a Phase III could include a mister, shelters for picnics and shade, restrooms and a drinking fountain.