Special Education

Finding a Better Way to Play For Students With Disabilities

By Lisa Fine — March 06, 2002 5 min read
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The part of the school day that Connecticut student Matthew Cavedon used to dread most might surprise other children his age: recess.

He attended classes alongside students without disabilities at his elementary school in Berlin, Conn. But when it came time to play, he was sidelined. From his wheelchair parked on the blacktop, Matthew would watch classmates swinging, jumping, running, and squealing on the slide.

“For many years of my life, I wasn’t able to play,” said the 12-year-old, who has arthrogryposis, a joint disorder that doesn’t allow him to straighten his legs. “I never felt more different.”

Sure, the playground at his former elementary school in Berlin met federal requirements for accessibility to students with disabilities. But that didn’t mean it was fun or even feasible for him to use the equipment, he said.

Now Matthew is a junior recruit in a growing campaign to persuade schools, despite increasingly strapped state and local education budgets, to build playgrounds that can be enjoyed by all students. The movement has slowly gathered momentum in recent years as educators have realized that “inclusion” for pupils with disabilities doesn’t end in the classroom.

As a member of the junior advisory board for a nonprofit group, Boundless Playgrounds, based in Bloomfield, Conn., Matthew is helping to raise money for schools to build state- of-the-art playgrounds designed to be fun for students with or without disabilities.

Since it was formed in 1997, Boundless Playgrounds has helped 17 schools and early-intervention centers nationwide design and construct play areas meant especially to accommodate children with disabilities. The creation of 20 more such playgrounds at schools is under way.

“Schools have shown more and more interest in playgrounds that are truly accessible,” said Janet Ralston, a Boundless Playgrounds spokeswoman. “Our country has worked very hard to make inclusion in the classroom happen. But it’s in the playgrounds where children learn how to relate to one another.”

The “boundless playgrounds” are 70 percent accessible to students with disabilities. That exceeds the federal requirement, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that 50 percent of school and community playgrounds be reachable for such students.

I Believe I Can Fly

Before Baltimore principal Shari Huene-Johnson’s school for students with disabilities had a boundless playground, she had deemed the school’s blacktop off limits. The cracks in the pavement sometimes caused students in wheelchairs to tip over. The only other option for outdoor play, at least for children with physical impairments, was for them to go into a courtyard and ring a series of bells mounted at wheelchair level.

“It was bad,” Ms. Huene-Johnson said. “They still got physical therapy, but it wasn’t the same as being able to get out and play. Then there are these big bells. Hit the bell. Make a noise.”

But since the William S. Baer School unveiled its redesigned playground in December, students with disabilities have enjoyed opportunities to learn schoolyard lessons about sharing and cooperation, the principal said.

The new playground at the special school for students aged 3 to 21, is called “I Believe I Can Fly.” The playscape includes two side-by-side slides—one for a student and one for an aide who can guide the student down; monkey bars just above wheelchair height; and an elevated sandbox reachable by children in wheelchairs.

“Many of the kids cry when it’s time to come inside, because they are having so much fun,” Ms. Huene-Johnson said. “Your spirits soar watching them play, because you want them to be able to do what other kids their age are doing.”

Ms. Huene-Johnson said the school received a state grant and private donations to pay for the $300,000 cost. Of the school’s 220 students, 170 have multiple disabilities and about 50 are not disabled.

“Boundless” playgrounds are not designed just for students who are mobility-impaired and need wheelchairs. For example, the play area can include activities with sounds for students with poor vision. Or such playgrounds may have quiet spaces for students with autism, who sometimes need to escape from the playground’s overwhelming social frenzy.

The federal requirement that students with disabilities be able to reach at least half of a playground’s equipment has typically resulted in the installation of ramps up to the equipment or, in many cases, the use of so-called transfer decks. Such decks are platforms onto which students are supposed to slide from their wheelchairs and then climb onto other equipment.

But advocates for further accommodations say the use of ramps and transfer decks may do more in theory than in practice.

“That is humiliating for many students in wheelchairs,” said Matthew, currently in seventh grade at the McGee Middle School in Berlin, Conn. “Imagine climbing up the stairs to a sliding board, only to find that once you are at the top, there is no slide. That is how it feels for a student with a disability to get to a piece of equipment and not be able to use it.”

Many school officials have been looking into updating playgrounds for safety. Ms. Ralston said she hopes they will take the opportunity to build playgrounds that also exceed standards for accessibility.

A “boundless” playground requires more space than a typical playground, and costs around 10 percent to 15 percent more, or a total of between $150,000 and $350,000, Ms. Ralston said.

The effort has started to get attention in the past year from Connecticut and Maryland lawmakers. Legislatures there established grant programs to help schools and communities build boundless playgrounds. Nancy Doran, an occupational therapist at the Baer School, said that, emotional benefits aside, such playgrounds help students with disabilities improve their coordination and balance.

Tanisha Fizer, a Baltimore mother of a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy, said her son doesn’t have to be able to speak to tell her he likes having the new playground at Baer.

“It gives me a sense of hope,” she said. “Even if he can’t tell you verbally, his smiles, laughter, and screaming with joy tells you. I know he is happy.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Finding a Better Way to Play For Students With Disabilities

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