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Inclusive playgrounds are being built in the Ozarks, allowing kids with differing abilities to play together and offering better access for caregivers

An inclusive playground is being built in Willard, Missouri (photo taken April, 2024).
Michele Skalicky
An inclusive playground is being built in Willard, Missouri (photo taken April, 2024).

Grant money is making many of the projects possible, including in Willard.

Research shows that play is an important part of a child’s development, and so is getting outdoors. According to an article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “playing outside promotes curiosity, creativity and critical thinking.” Children who spend time outdoors tend to have less anger and aggression, and impulse control improves, it said. And the article pointed out that getting some sun helps our bodies make vitamin D, which it needs to stay healthy.

Kaleigh Pickett is instructor and program coordinator with the Missouri State University School of Special Education, Leadership and Professional Studies.

Kaleigh Pickett with Missouri State University (photo taken April, 2024)
Michele Skalicky
Kaleigh Pickett with Missouri State University (photo taken April, 2024)

“We know that play is incredibly important for children and their development," she said, "and...how they learn a lot of those soft, you know, people skills. So making a space where everyone is physically able to access and then adding in inclusive pieces where, you know, sensory needs are being met and there's options and universal design for all individuals to take part in play and to have a good time while they're playing is super important for kids.”

But for kids with disabilities, getting outside can be difficult.

Andrea Harp lives in Springfield and has twin daughters named Alex and Ainsley. One is what she calls a typical eight-year-old. The other has cerebral palsy and autism. Having a place for them to play together, she said, is huge.

“Because when you have a child with a disability, they don’t want to sit and watch their sibling play, they want to play alongside them. They want to play with their peers and their friends, and they want to be included. And so an inclusive playground is so valuable because it provides those opportunities.

A project that’s underway in Willard, a town of about 6,000 northwest of Springfield, will make it possible for kids of all abilities to play together. Better Together Playgroundformed as a nonprofit in 2022 to provide what it said will be a state of the art, inclusive playground at the city’s Jackson Street Park.

Jason Knight is Willard Parks Director – and full disclosure – he’s also the husband of Ozarks Public Broadcasting General Manager Rachel Knight. He said the old play equipment encompassed about a 3,000-square-foot area, and the ground was a mix of crumb rubber mulch and gravel, which are not friendly to people using a mobility device.

Two years after it was formed, with a lot of community fundraising, a $100,000 grant from Abilities First, American Rescue Plan Act money and a $25,000 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion grant award from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, opening day isn’t too far away.

“We now have a 14,000-square-foot excavation that's going to end up being about 10,000-square-feet finished with a completely user accessible surface, wheelchair ramps.,” he said.

The playground will meet the seven standards for inclusive play, he said. Those are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, low physical effect and size and space for approach and use.

“One of the things that we focused on was making sure that we had a roller slide so that individuals with cochlear implants wouldn't be affected by the static buildup that comes from a traditional plastic slide," Knight said. We have a saucer swing so, whether or not you have the core stability to hold yourself upright in a traditional swing, you still get the vestibular motion of swinging. We have a zip line that has both an unsupported an a supported option so that you have the opportunity to really feel like you're soaring across the playground. We really have focused on like, kind of trying to match what we have here with every level of ability.”

He expects the new playground to be open by June 22 – just in time for the city’s Freedom Fest celebration at the park.

New play equipment at the Ava City Park (photo taken April, 2024).
Michele Skalicky
New play equipment at the Ava City Park (photo taken April, 2024).

In the opposite direction from Springfield – about 50 miles southeast – kids play on new playground equipment at the Upper Ava City Park.

This project is a much smaller one than the playground project in Willard, but to officials with the City of Ava, it’s huge.

On this site, there’s a pavilion that’s stood for several years and there’s a newer restroom facility. The city was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks through the Coover Charitable Foundation last year. And that allowed old playground equipment that used to stand on top of thick gravel to be replaced with a brightly colored play structure, complete with slides, a climbing apparatus and more.

"That one piece of playground equipment was just hazardous because it was just aging," said Ava City Clerk Suzanne Welch, "so this is what the grant allowed us to have were some swings, which we didn't have, and then this nice piece of playground equipment."

A sign at Ava City Park (photo taken April, 2024)
Michele Skalicky
A sign at Ava City Park (photo taken April, 2024)

The grant funded more than half of the project. Parking was expanded, allowing more people access to the play equipment and pavilion, and the gravel was replaced by mulch, making it easier for people with mobility devices like canes and walkers to get around. And two benches were added.

Parks Director Sherry Wallace is happy to see it finished and to see people enjoying it.

"I'm so pleased with it," she said, "and then we've got the two new benches, and, as you can see, those are being used. It's just — it's quieter up here, and I just, it's more serene. I really like it up here."

Ava Mayor David Norman said the park is probably the most important area in his town of around 3,000 people. And enhancing the park, he said improves quality of life for not only people living there but also for people passing through and those who live in Douglas County.

"I go by here three or four times a day —I go home, and there's just lots more people using it," he said, "so it means a lot."

Wallace said it was the city’s goal to get new ADA-compliant playground equipment in the upper park eventually, but the grant allowed the project to be done all at once.

While the term inclusive playground can encompass a wide variety of offerings, Kaleigh Pickett is happy to see more places thinking about inclusiveness when it comes to outdoor play spaces.

“As humans we learn by watching others for a lot of it. We learn by modeling," she said. "So watching other kids play and being able to take part in that play with them is really integral for our kids, for their mental development, their social development, you know, their relational pieces. And a lot of kids struggle with that. So being intentional about the spaces that we build for them to facilitate more of that play is going to be really important for them."

Emma Holdway is a high school senior and an advocate for play spaces that are accessible to everyone. She started a partnership with Praise Assembly in north Springfield, and they created Northeast Community Park, which will have a fully inclusive playground. She said that’s important for kids who otherwise would have to sit on the sidelines.

"If they're in a typical playground they can tell that they can't do certain things, and a lot of our disabled children realize that they're different because they can't do those things," she said, "but with having inclusive playgrounds...everybody's included, and so everybody can play, and everyone can learn off of each other."

Support for KSMU's Making a Difference series is provided by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.