My two-year-old son K.B. is an animated kid, one with a big personality and even bigger curiosity. He runs from one area to the next, touching everything in sight. Since moving to Austin, Texas a year ago, though, it has been tough for me and K.B.’s father to find an outdoor space where a toddler with a righteous mullet could expend his energy without getting too hurt by the bigger kids.
More so, we’ve had a hard time finding a place that can accommodate his father’s disability. He has Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD), a slowly progressing, degenerative disease that affects the strength of his muscles. Because he can’t climb steps well, my fiance would have to circle the jungle gym while I chased after our son from one slide to the next. The lack of a ramp has kept him from interacting with his kid in a meaningful way.
That’s until we discovered Play for All Abilities Park in Round Rock, a mid-size town about 13 miles outside of where we live in North Austin. The sprawling, 51,000 sq-ft park is an outdoor space that functions both as a playground and therapy center. It has eight sections that cater to children with different physical, developmental or cognitive abilities: A retreat pod, sensory pod-sandbox, a rock band pod, a rolling hill/performance lawn, a sensory pod, all abilities jungle gym, all ability swings including one designed for wheelchairs, and a safety town. Play for All Abilities, which opened in 2012, was a community-wide effort built in response to the need for a universally inclusive park where children of all abilities could learn, play and thrive.
All Kids Deserve A Place To Play
Play for All Abilities Park has been a game-changer for my family. My son, who is showing early signs of asthma, now has a place where he can run around without us worrying if his sometimes slow pace will annoy the other kids around him. And his father now engages with his kid without worrying if someone will stare or make an offensive comment.
A playground designed for all abilities teaches children from a young age that not all bodies are the same and that some will play differently than him. Some kids will need to use a swing made for a wheelchair, others will need a space that’s quiet and calm. (I have depression, which sometimes makes interaction difficult. There’s no doubt that kids living with mental illnesses or trauma would also need a safe space in the park.) And some kids will need to walk up a ramp to get to the slide. All of these things are included in Play for All Abilities Park.
We, as a society, often treat play as a blanket activity — that play looks the same for everyone, in every way. One of my major criticisms of former first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign is that it largely ignored the needs of kids with disabilities. According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, kids with disabilities represented 13 percent of all public school students between 2014 and 2015; in hard numbers, that translates to nearly seven million children.
Although the initiative acknowledged disability, “Let’s Move!” rarely, if ever, offered substantial alternatives to exercise and play. When we exclude disabilities from conversations about athletics, we deny children who are disabled the equal opportunity to take part in physical activity. We also send the message that people with disabilities don’t deserve the consideration or respect to be included.
Take my fiance, for example. Growing up, he was mocked constantly for having a physical disability. He couldn’t run, jump or climb like the other children. He couldn’t fully take part in sports or recess. But instead of someone making accommodations so that he could be involved in play in a way that worked for his body, he was shut out and demonized for having a disability.
That’s why places like Play for All Abilities are necessary. The Round Rock park shows my son and other children that every body can play, but some bodies may need to do so in another way. The playground’s inclusivity of physical, developmental and cognitive disabilities opens my toddler and other kids to the many ways that people experience the world. It plants the seeds of understanding — of recognizing that being inclusive of kids with disabilities so that they can join in and enjoy play should be an ordinary thing to do.
Play for All Abilities Brings Us Closer Together
But Play for All Abilities Park, and recreational areas like it, is especially important to my family. The space allows my fiance to play with his son without having to worry about how he’ll walk up steps or climb an object to get to his kid. The park affords him a chance to interact with K.B. in a way that doesn’t hurt his body or exclude him from playing all together.
The Round Rock playground also gives our son an opportunity to better connect with his father. K.B. is going to grow up with two parents who are opposite from each other in a lot of ways. We expect him to ask questions about why his dad can’t bend or why his mom is sad all the time. But Play for All Abilities offers us a place, as parents, to show our son that disabilities exist in a variety of ways and that, despite how society regards and treats people with disabilities, they deserve the same respect, treatment and inclusion as everyone else. It gives us an universally accessible area where we can teach K.B. that, just because his dad can’t lift him the way mama can, he can still play — just in a different way. And that should be no big deal.
If you ask me, all cities need to invest in their own version of Round Rock’s Play for All Abilities Park. A playground built for all bodies creates an environment of inclusivity that chips away at the ableism that’s inherent in society. Even installing multiple ramps in a jungle gym can make a significant difference in accessibility for people with disabilities.
In the end, every child deserve a safe, fun and welcoming place to play.