How accessible playgrounds foster independence for kids with disabilities
When Natalie Mackay’s son Zachary Blakemore was 3 years old, typical playgrounds were challenging for him to navigate in his wheelchair. Often, they were places of burden.
“It would emphasize his limitations. He would start to ask questions why he couldn't play,” she told St. Louis on the Air. “And I wanted to fix that problem.”
Inspired by her son's experience, Mackay founded Unlimited Play nearly 20 years ago. Her first project was Zachary’s Playground in Lake St. Louis, an accessible playground honoring him.
“Zachary wheeled through and he literally said, ‘Mom, I'm gonna go that way and you go the other way,’” she said. “It provided that freedom for him to just be a kid. It's one of the moments I will forever be grateful for.”
Since then, the St. Peters-based nonprofit has designed and built nearly 90 playgrounds in Missouri and across the country. The need is ever present, Mackay said, because most playgrounds are not inclusive enough, despite the fact that they comply with American Disability Act standards.
West St. Louis County resident Erin Gooch has seen how playgrounds fail to allow her 7-year-old son Teddy to play independently.
“When we're on a noninclusive playground, I'm helping him lift, helping him get on and off things, holding his hand, propping him up to get up the steps to the safely, helping him on the monkey bars that he can't reach or they're too far apart,” she said. “It's a lot of work for both of us, and we normally leave exhausted, physically and mentally.”
Teddy was born with dwarfism. Gooch said the Unlimited Play playground in Lake St. Louis was a game changer for them both.
“It was phenomenal,” she said. “Teddy was running around without me, and we got in the car, and Teddy was like, ‘That was the best playdate ever … because I could do everything without you helping me.’”
Gooch has since partnered with St. Louis County and Unlimited Play to revamp a playground closer to her home. It’s in the fundraising stages, and when it’s built, Teddy & Friends Inclusive Playground at Queeny Park will have a board game theme, one of Teddy’s favorite pastimes.
There are many design features that Unlimited Play uses to ensure playgrounds can be safely enjoyed by kids or guardians who have a disability, Mackay said.
Poured-in-place rubber surfacing is used in place of mulch or gravel flooring, for example, allowing children using wheelchairs to ride more smoothly. Roller slides are added to accommodate the needs of children with cochlear implants, whose devices can be damaged by static electricity that traditional plastic slides often create.
Design elements like these, Mackay said, allows children of all abilities to play together.
“We've done a really good job showing the rest of the nation the standard that should be held, particularly for playgrounds,” Mackay said. “I feel honored … to be part of so many families' journeys and stories that are just like mine and watch as their children play for the very first time. It's an incredible journey.”
To learn more about what makes playgrounds truly accessible, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.