On a recent afternoon at Rocket’s Universe Playground in North Hollywood, kids – some with disabilities, some without – were bouncing on an oversized teeter-totter, climbing on a moon sculpture, drumming on hollow plastic tubes and waiting their turn to slip down a reverberating slide. They were doing what kids do best: playing.
For children, play is more than just routine fun and games. Learning new skills and engaging in challenging experiences are important pathways in the developmental process, a way to strengthen creativity, self-expression, cognitive and motor skills, socialization and sensory abilities.
Efforts to make play accessible – whether by modifying structures, games or programs – for the disabled community have bloomed in the past decade. Adaptive play is no longer confined to offices of occupational or physical therapists. The concept is being purposefully integrated into mainstream offerings, making the play experience a truly inclusive one and providing a welcoming incorporation for children without disabilities.
Mia Williams remembers when she used to take her son John Taylor, aka “Rocket,” to Shane’s Inspiration, the first inclusive playground in the greater L.A. area. Born with a rare genetic disease, Rocket loved swinging and watching his two sisters play. When he died at the age of 2, his grandparents sponsored Rocket’s Universe, which opened in 2017, near the family’s home.
“Shane’s Inspiration was a place to feel like a normal child. Disabilities just disappeared,” says Williams. “Being able to get on the equipment and join in with other kids opens up so many other possibilities in the lives of children with disabilities.” As she watched children play at Rocket’s Universe on that recent afternoon, she imagined the developmental milestones and friendships that will be made at this park named after her son.
Debuting in 2000, Shane’s Inspiration was the first inclusive playground in the southwestern U.S. Based on that successful venture, the nonprofit organization was contacted by other municipalities to build similar structures and has created 69 playgrounds to date – including 42 in L.A. County and international playgrounds in Russia, Israel, Canada, Ecuador and Mexico.
As adaptive play is incorporated into the mainstream, it is also changing attitudes.
“Growing up, I never saw a person with a disability. They were kept separate,” says Michelle Massie who, with son Cole (born with cerebral palsy and now 21) also frequented Shane’s. Back then, Massie remembers fighting sand and wood chips as she pushed Cole’s wheelchair in typical parks, even those that were compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Going to parks was so difficult, that “we just gave up,” she says.
But Shane’s offered Cole opportunities to shine. “We could push the wheelchair onto every piece of equipment and right away he was talking with other kids and interacting. All of a sudden, the whole world came alive for him,” says Massie, who credits the playground with giving Cole the foundation for his career. He is an accomplished actor currently starring on the ABC show “Speechless.”
“For typical kids, going to the playground is just a part of their day, their life, part of who they are,” Massie explains. “When that element is taken out, you start to shrivel. You don’t learn boundaries, you don’t learn communication, how to walk up and talk to make a new friend – all that gets taken away. This playground gives that all back.”
Massie says every park should be inclusive, and that ADA compliance doesn’t always cut it for those in the disabled community. “I know budgets are tight and play doesn’t sound important, but it is,” she explains. “We are losing how important it is for our children’s development. There should be budgets to retrofit, upgrades, not just to be ADA but inclusive. When you include everybody, you get so much more.”
Inclusion and Changing Attitudes
Dina Kimmel agrees that expanding inclusivity helps parents incorporate a healthy dose of play into daily life for their children with disabilities.
Kimmel, whose son Gabriel has autism, remembers that nine years ago, the temperament toward children with disabilities at mainstream indoor gyms and playgrounds was downright hostile, especially if the child acted up. “People would look at you as if you were a terrible parent. No compassion whatsoever,” she says.
Determined to get her son moving, Kimmel created an adaptive gym in her home. She saw how Gabriel’s relationship with his sister Sophia, who does not have autism, changed through their play together. Biting and hitting turned into fun shared activities, something the siblings hadn’t previously experienced. Kimmel also credits play with inspiring Gabriel, at age 4, to begin speaking, and with several other improvements. “He slept and ate better. The transformation was unbelievable,” she says.
Realizing that kids of all abilities needed a similar inclusive interactive indoor play space, Kimmel launched We Rock The Spectrum four years ago in Tarzana. Today, this chain has 50 locations across the U.S., including 12 in the greater L.A. area and five in other countries.
Equipment is adapted to accommodate all types of disabilities and, while Kimmel stresses that the gym is not a substitute for therapies, she calls it “what to do in between.” The crowd at We Rock The Spectrum is generally about 40 percent children with disabilities, with the rest made up of their siblings, friends and other families from the community.
“Our tagline is ‘We’re Finally a Place Where You Never Have to Say ‘I’m Sorry’ because we all understand the struggles,” Kimmel says. “We have all been there and no one is going to judge you here. Our gyms really are part of a worldwide movement of inclusion.”
Buddies and Imagination
Pairing up players who have disabilities with buddies who don’t is the goal of Buddy Baseball, an international program that has a local Beverly Hills team. There are bats, balls and bases, but no scorekeeping or strict rules apply at these fun party-like games where enthusiastic crowds use cowbells, clappers and music to cheer on athlete pairs.
“Typical kids are buddies for our kids with disabilities, playing together as one. Often that duo forms a bond and teams up year after year,” says Brooke Goldberg, who organizes the games with her husband, Jon.
For children with disabilities who love baseball, these games are an adrenaline shot of self-confidence and empowerment. Athletes play in wheelchairs and walkers. Some do not speak and some struggle with social skills. All are welcomed. “When that kid takes the bat to swing, they are the center of attention,” says Goldberg. “All eyes are on you and it’s a magical moment that allows them to feel like a rock star. There is so much happiness in that one hour – for everyone.”
The magic of a child’s imagination can be just as powerful a tool for developmental growth as physical activities, says Maja Watkins, co-founder of Zip Zap Zop, which offers improv classes and camps for children with disabilities.
Every silly game in Watkins’ arsenal of improv fun can be adapted to fit a child’s specific abilities, whether or not that child is verbal. “Laughter is a freeing experience,” she says. “You form a strong bond when you laugh with someone.” Watkins, whose brother has autism and who trained at The Second City, has witnessed numerous children grow from flexing brain muscles that rely on group interaction, collaboration, listening and observational skills.
Watkins describes one exercise that pairs up players and tasks them with trying to make each other laugh. “This one student kept telling the same joke over and over,” she says. “It wasn’t working.” Finally, she had the student think about what might make their partner laugh – not what would make them laugh. A-ha!
That light bulb moment translates into all facets of life for these kids. “Being able to think about others, learning empathy, is a huge milestone,” Watkins says.
Playing Like Angels
Formalized adaptive sports programs have been steadily growing in Southern California. The first Angel City Games, featuring Paralympic-style sporting events, were held in 2015, and the games’ annual display of physicality among athletes with disabilities has expanded from two to four days this year. The 2019 games, to be held June 20-23 at UCLA, will be the largest such event in the western U.S.
Building on the success of the games, the nonprofit Angel City Sports now offers year-round adaptive-sports workshops and clinics across California in sports, including golf, swimming, tennis, basketball and fencing for casual and competitive athletes. These introductory workshops, says founder Clayton Frech, are not typically segmented by age. “It’s good for kids to see adults who have the same disabilities they have,” he says. “It’s very eye-opening and inspiring.”
Frech is the father of 10-year-old Ezra, who was born with one leg shorter than the other and only one finger on his left hand. Ezra underwent extensive surgery to amputate his foot and uses a prosthetic leg to walk. He has competed in basketball, football, karate and track and field. Frech says that playing sports is more than just learning how to push and work your body. “The power of the sports is having a community, a team behind you,” he says. “These kids may be bullied at school or feel isolated. Playing gets them out of that and into something bigger.”
Frech recalls one kid, recently paralyzed after being hit by a car, who arrived at a weekend sports camp sullen and stoic. “We just built a cocoon of love and support around him,” Frech says. By the end of the weekend, the kid was cracking jokes, buzzing around in his wheelchair and having the time of his life.
Frech says sports, like any form of play, is a positive intervention. “We address what may be impossible or logically complicated,” he says. “Because when you tackle something that has been tagged impossible in the past, you have the freedom to dream today.”
Brenda Rees is a freelance writer living in Eagle Rock. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Westways magazine and Arroyo Monthly.