On the top of a small hill at Shawnee Mission Park’s new million-dollar playground, children swarm on an elaborate spider web of ropes. Down a wheelchair-friendly ramp to a more shaded area, families swing, slide and clamber over a myriad of structures that spin, bounce or make music.
It’s all designed to be fun — and accessible — for kids of different abilities.
The inclusive playground highlights a growing trend in the Kansas City area of helping kids with special needs get off the sidelines and into the action. The Kansas City Zoo opened such a playground in 2018, the first zoo to do so in the nation. Later that year, Johnson County added one in Stillwell. The playground at Shawnee Mission Park opened earlier this month.
“More and more of our focus is whether playgrounds are completely inclusive or include inclusive elements,” said Jeff Stewart, Johnson County Parks and Recreation deputy director. Going forward, he said, that will be the model for any playground built by the county.
Although playgrounds around the country are required to comply with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the law doesn’t always address the ways, both obvious and subtle, that people with special needs can be excluded from play.
Access to parks has been improving for years. But still, “some parks just don’t get it right,” said Rick Haith, recreation outreach director of The Whole Person, a local nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live independently.
For instance, mulch and some landscaping can block people in wheelchairs — parents and kids alike. Playground equipment often isn’t built with them in mind. Changing tables may be commonplace for babies, but sometimes larger versions are needed for older kids. Fencing is needed for kids who are prone to wandering, common for those who are on the autism spectrum. Those kids especially enjoy bright colors and musical sounds, and they also like having quiet, shaded places to decompress.
Those accommodations drive the sticker price up for inclusive playgrounds, but advocates are quick to point out that the higher price is made up for by the wider range of people who can enjoy the parks. Around 25% of families in the United States have a member with a disability of some kind, according to the U.S. Census.
“As someone with a disability myself, I know what it’s like to not be included, right? Or to sit on the sidelines,” said Haith, who uses a wheelchair. “Imagine yourself not able to jump over a six-inch curb, and you’re sitting in a chair and you’re at that curb, and 30 yards away you see everyone that’s your age — maybe you’re 10 years old at the time — having fun playing on things, and all you get to do is just sit and watch because you don’t have access. You can’t be included because none of the implements are designed for you to be able to use them or get to them.”
More than a dozen inclusive playgrounds have popped up around the area. Variety Kansas City, a nonprofit for special-needs children, has helped build seven of them, with another planned for Children’s Mercy Hospital.
“This population of kids never had an opportunity to play before,” said Deborah Wiebrecht, the organization’s executive director. “And by opening this opportunity — just by creating equipment that’s a little different — it opens up the world to the special needs population.”
Variety has contacted other cities about helping them build new playgrounds, she said.
On a recent hot summer day, the new Shawnee Mission playground was slammed. Kids with and without disabilities played alike.
The ground is covered with a flat, rubbery material that wheelchairs can traverse. There’s a giant xylophone to bang on, tunnels to climb through, handicap-accessible sliding and spinning structures and a colorful path looping around the whole area for kids to trace.
The playground is near the park’s east entrance, off 80th Terrace. It isn’t perfect, said some parents who brought their kids there. Some of the metal slides grew frighteningly hot under the sun. Someone had left the gate to the playground open.
Davey Uria, 10, who uses a wheelchair, said he wished there was a swing that he didn’t have to get out of his chair to enjoy.
But the nearby bathrooms were appreciated. So was the slide that a little boy with autism was able to use independently, as well as the musical toys and other specially designed amenities. Davey said his favorite was a spinning carousel he could sit in.
“It felt like I was on a UFO, of an alien!” he said.
The most important thing, many said, is that kids like Davey can get out and enjoy the same playgrounds other kids do.
“The first time I wheeled onto a basketball court and I saw 20 other people in chairs playing the game, it was — that sense of belonging. It was like I found my tribe. I can do what they’re doing,” Haith said.
“If you can come out and play, it’s going to change your life. It changed mine.”