Play Program Bridges Gaps Between Typical and Special Needs Kids

By Christina Elston

Special needs Reese's Retreat

The Reese’s Retreat accessible playground in Pasadena’s Brookside park is just one of the many Shane’s Inspiration playgrounds in the area. PHOTO COURTESY SHANE’S INSPIRATION

One morning in late February, 16 students from Damin Hopkins’ eighth-grade class at Chandler school in Pasadena set out on a field trip to the Reese’s Retreat playground in Brookside Park. Most observers would think these kids – an exuberant but polite group in school T-shirts and jackets – were a little old for swings and pirate-themed play structures. But this class was on a special mission. They were there to meet their buddies.

The buddies arrived by bus from College View School, a public school in the Glendale Unified School District, and made their way from the parking lot to the playground with a little help from their friends. Some were in wheelchairs, some visually impaired, some on the autism spectrum and prone to take off running. Most had adult caregivers with them.

Hopkins’ students were ready. As each student or pair of students was assigned a buddy, they crouched down to introduce themselves, giving hugs or high-fives or shaking hands. Then off they went to play.

Before Hopkins’ class left Chandler that morning, he led them through a 60-minute ability-awareness workshop created by Together, We Are Able, a social inclusion program that brings children with typical abilities together with kids with various kinds of special needs.

The kids talked about the importance of play, and were asked to reflect on, and write about, three questions:

  • What does disability mean?
  • How do you feel when you see someone with a disability?
  • Do you know someone with a disability?

The writing was followed by more class discussion, a game about assumptions, and a video showing children with physical, communication and sensory challenges. “It’s all getting them ready for the playground experience,” says Jennifer Quick, Education Program Manager at Shane’s Inspiration, the nonprofit that funds this program and builds inclusive playgrounds – including Reese’s Retreat – throughout the world.

Special Needs Reese's Retreat Chandler 1

Chandler student Max Rosenfeld and his buddy from College View School play together on the rocking boat at Reese’s Retreat in Pasadena. The boat is accessible via a ramp, and large enough that students in wheel chairs can play with their friends. PHOTOS BY JUSTIN FRANK/CHANDLER SCHOOL

Some kids are really excited, but have reservations. “They’re nervous. They’re curious. They don’t know what to expect,” Quick says. So the program includes specific tools – such as getting down to eye level with a child who is in a wheelchair – that kids will be able to use on the playground. “Once it’s demystified for them, they can get to the play,” says Quick.

The playgrounds themselves are a big part of the process, because they are designed from the ground up to bring together typical kids and kids with disabilities. The surface beneath the play structures isn’t covered with sand, grass or bark – which would keep wheelchairs from rolling. Instead, it is covered with brightly colored, really squishy rubber matting, which at Reese’s Retreat is decorated with sea life to fit with the playground’s pirate theme. There are three kinds of swings, so that children who need extra back support can use them. Gently sloping ramps give kids in wheelchairs access to the climbing structure (which in this case resembles a pirate ship), and all structures include tactile and sound features for children who are visually impaired. At Reese’s Retreat, a rocking boat is big enough that kids in wheelchairs can roll aboard with their friends. It proves wildly popular.

The Together, We Are Able program started in 2002, and has reached more than 35,000 kids on three continents to date, according to Quick. Designed for students in fourth through sixth grades but adaptable up to grade 12, the curriculum’s activities are adapted to each age group.

Initially, Quick traveled to each school to deliver the classroom workshops, and attended all field trips. But there is now a virtual curriculum called the Inclusion Lunch Box education program that helps teachers like Hopkins do the introductory workshop, classroom follow-up (which gives kids a chance to talk about the experience) and field trip on their own, helping expand the program’s reach. The Inclusion Lunch Box includes a classroom poster promoting inclusion, a teacher’s guide and a DVD highlighting a “day in the life” of three children with disabilities.

Special Needs Chandler Hopkins

Teacher Damin Hopkins from Chandler school circled the playground encouraging his students during their Together, We Are Able field trip in February. Ian Freer of Chandler pushes a College View student in an accessible swing.

On the class field trips, students play on the universally accessible equipment, as well as with balls, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, parachutes, “anything that will help the kids connect with each other through play,” Quick says. For teachers in schools that aren’t near an inclusive playground, there are inclusive activities that can be used on any playground.

At schools that have typical and special-education students, kids from the same school take the field trip together. Classrooms from schools that do not have special-education students, such as Chandler, are paired with classrooms from a school such as College View, which serves only students with special needs.

After a few hours of play, it’s time to board the bus to return to school. And if the kids and their buddies are from different schools, it’s time to say good-bye. “That experience of having them walk their buddies to their bus is amazing,” says Quick. The kids often ask whether they will see each other again.

In the case of Chandler and College View, the relationship is ongoing. This is Hopkins’ second year doing a Together, We Are Able field trip with a College View class. Last year, he followed up by taking his class to spend a full day at College View, which he says is even better than the playground trip because the kids have more time together. This year’s class will visit College View for a day later in the year.

For schools that have a special-education population, Together, We Are Able can also help build lasting relationships between students by offering inclusion training for school staff and parents. Quick says that aides for students with special needs are often so focused on the challenges of the child they are caring for that they forget about facilitating play. Teachers, meanwhile, can be great at getting typical and special-needs kids together in the classroom, but don’t realize they can also help these kids mix at recess and lunch. Helping these schools facilitate a monthly inclusive play day on campus is a way to build bridges.

With Together, We Are Able, that is the mission. And at Chandler, at least, it seems to be working. It’s clear from the way he circles the playground, greeting kids from College View and spurring the play along, that Hopkins is delighted with the program. He says his kids are as well. “When our kids graduate and come back [to visit the school],” says Hopkins, “they always talk about this experience.”

Schools interested in participating in the Together, We Are Able program can learn more at


Inclusion Lunch Box Giveaway

inclusion lunch boxShane’s Inspiration is giving away $2,500 to one lucky teacher (and $1,000 each to two runners up) to fund social inclusion programs at their schools.

To enter the giveaway, teachers need to order the Inclusion Lunch Box and complete the awareness workshop, field drip and follow-up no later than May 25. They must also submit a brief outline of their social inclusion plans and goas for the 2015-16 school year.

Winners of the drawing will be announced the week of June 1, and funds will be distributed in the fall.

Interested teachers can visit to enter. Those with questions should contact Director of Programs Marnie Norris at 818-988-5676 ext. 112 or



Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.

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