A “recess renaissance” is on the rise as adaptive and inclusive playgrounds that foster the physical, mental, and emotional health of special needs children are gaining ground across the state.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires all students in grades K-12 to participate in a variety of locomotor and movement-based activities.
Yet, children with disabilities often lack access to safe, adaptive outdoor play spaces. This shortage is blamed, in part, for the reportedly 38 percent higher rate of obesity in children with disabilities.
The good news is the ever-increasing call from special needs parents and educators is prompting public and private schools and communities to open new adaptive, barrier-free playgrounds with innovative structures for kids of all abilities.
The City of Boston officially opened Martin’s Park on the South Boston waterfront in June.
The public park was dedicated to Martin W. Richard, who at 8 years old was the youngest killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
The park is adjacent to the Boston Children’s Museum and includes adaptive structures for kids of all abilities, such as Martin’s sister Jane, who lost a leg in the bombings.
In Central Massachusetts, Coes Park holds more than 20 acres of green and blue space that offers four seasons of amenities including the region’s first state-of-the-art, universally accessible, multigenerational park and playground.
Robert C. Antonelli Jr., Assistant Commissioner for Worcester Parks and Recreation, said the public park at Mill and Coes streets opened in 2017.
The vision began with the city’s 2004 Master Plan, which was shaped with input from the Worcester Disability Commission and citizens.
“Administration felt it was important to make the park accessible to everyone,” Antonelli said. “We were looking for a dynamic, intergenerational design for those with mobility issues.”
A state PARC grant of $400,000 helped fund the $1.2 million project to build the park, with the city funding the balance.
The adaptive play area, Antonelli said, offers 19 elevated and 38 ground level features, including seven small bumps to represent the seven hills of Worcester; all on a rubberized surface.
Antonelli said the park’s high use has prompted the city to add another 30 parking spaces to the present 28 next year.
Worcester city officials hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony on August 22 to celebrate renovations made to Holmes Field, at the corner March and Plantation streets. This $1.3 million makeover included the installation of a new, accessible playground with specialized areas for ages 2-5 and 5-12.
Looking to the west you’ll find Jessica’s Boundless Playground in Belchertown, a multi-generational activity structure for people of all abilities.
The fully handicap accessible playground offers wide ramps for wheelchairs and a rubberized surface rather than wood chips.
Donations made possible the nearly $500,000 project that was built in memory of local teen Jessica Martins, who died in 2009 from Rett’s Syndrome, which is a rare disorder that causes a slowing of growth and development.
The move to increase accessible play spaces is also growing in the private, specialized schools for special needs children.
Elizabeth Becker is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools, which implements innovative programs to serve students with ranging physical and emotional disabilities.
“There is a recess renaissance occurring here because Massachusetts is a leader at large, and especially in special education,” Becker said. “There’s a realization that recess is so much more than play – it’s education.”
The 80 schools associated with maaps, she said, self-fundraise to install outdoor play spaces with each designed to meet the specific needs of the children in that school.
Crossroads School based in Marlboro serves more than 60 students ages 3-22 with autism from more than 45 communities statewide.
Two years of fundraising in its school community and from businesses brought about a ribbon cutting in June that officially opened its 4,471 square foot adaptive playground, installed at a cost of $221,470.
Occupational Therapist Caroline Kalberer said Crossroads got its start two years ago when she learned about inclusive playgrounds at a conference.
The research that influenced the design of the school’s new multi-functional space included input from staff, parents, and students.
“We wanted to include a bank of swings, which was the most popular when we surveyed staff and students,” Kalberer said. “For our students that are sometimes socially isolated, we also included pieces that need more than one person to play on to encourage play with peers.”
The poured in place rubber foundation, she said, is painted with pathways for navigation and safety, and visuals that help cue safety rules for students.
Also, among the maaps community of schools, The Guild School for Human Services, located in Concord, celebrated the grand opening of its 6,400-square foot playground in November. This adaptive playground was designed to serve students with autism, intellectual disabilities, low vision and mobility challenges.
The Kennedy Day School in Brighton opened its state-of-the-art multi-functional park in August for students ages 3-21 from about 36 communities with complex needs ranging from mobility and motor control, to vision and hearing.
Jenn Fexis, vice president of education at Kennedy, said the costs she had seen for all-ability playgrounds ran $500,000 to $850,000.
The Kennedy Day School, she said, worked with the leaders in the various disciplines within the school and outside experts to design an emotional healing peace garden, an interactive space for music therapy, and a mobility garden.
“What is really unique is our mobility garden where these kids are learning how to walk on challenges surfaces to strengthen their balance or mobility,” she said.
Parents looking to locate public adaptive play spaces close to home have online resources.
Mass.gov publishes accessible recreation programs and sites here.
Let Kids Play, a consulting business that assists communities in creating new accessible play spaces, publishes an online directory here.
And, DisabilityInfo.org publishes a by state directory here.
Debbie LaPlaca is a veteran journalist, photographer, and joyful mom of two living in Central Massachusetts.