July 10, 2022

Saluting Three Community Champions for Inclusive Play

Over 7 million children in the United States have a disability. Far too few parks and playgrounds are designed to provide these children with a fun, fair, and equitable experience. While some may meet the government requirements for accessibility, they seldom offer a truly inclusive play experience. 

This inequity has led many people to ask questions, such as: 

  • How can we make an inclusive playground for every child?  
  • Who will help us to create a place where every child feels safe and included? 
  • What can we do as a community to ensure children and adults of all abilities have the same great experience in a park or playground?

These questions, and hundreds like them, are what we hear from people who advocate for inclusive play. They're asked by parents and teachers, brothers and sisters, city officials, and regular people who saw a problem and decided to make a difference. 

Friends meet on an inclusive playground

These are the community champions who make inclusive play possible for every child.

The journey they embark on to create places where everyone is included isn't always easy. It's often filled with late nights, hard-fought battles, and more tears than can be counted. But in the end, these are the people who change their part of the world, one playground at a time. 

Let's examine three stories of community champions who inspire us all with their commitment to inclusive play. 

1. Christian and Mary Cane

Field of Dreams Park & Playground–Toms River, New Jersey

When Christian and Mary Kane decided to build a new community playground, they weren't thinking about an old-fashioned wooden playground they remembered from their childhood. They wanted a playground designed with the latest research and materials. They dreamed of a place where every child could play together. They called their vision "Field of Dreams."

Kane family at Field of Dreams Playground

The inspiration for their dream is their son, Gavin. Gavin is 11 and suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 19 months old. Since then, he's used a wheelchair for mobility. After experiencing first-hand how limited the playground options were for Gavin, the Kanes were determined to create an inclusive space where everyone could have fun. 

 

In a recent interview with Fox News, Christian talked about his motivation to champion an inclusive playground. "Just because you have a limited ability doesn't mean you can't participate with others–it's just not right," said Kane.

Visitors to the park shared their thoughts in the Fox News interview:

"It gives my daughters someplace to… go and just be happy… and not feel excluded from anything," said one visitor." "She feels like… she belongs, you know?" Added another parent.

Field of Dreams was designed and installed by MRC Recreation, the exclusive representative for GameTime in New Jersey. The inclusive playground equipment designed by GameTime encourages all children to play together. Every play activity is wheelchair accessible with inclusive playground surfacing, ramps, and wide decks throughout the play structures.

Overhead view of Field of Dreams inclusive playground

Field of Dreams is more than a playground. It also features a wheelchair-accessible baseball field, a basketball court, and a miniature golf course.

What began as a mission to help their son have a place to play with his friends is now a regional destination for families and children of all abilities. 

2. Mindy McKnight

Kevin Hammersmith Memorial Park–New Albany, Indiana

At Mt. Tabor Elementary School, special education teacher Mindy McKnight saw first-hand how children with disabilities were left out of outdoor play and recreation. Students in her program have physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities. During school field days, it was difficult for her students to enjoy a day of play outside without a playground that met their needs.

 

"Six years ago, I had a big dream that our children in New Albany-Floyd County needed a space where typical children and children with special needs could play together," she said. "On field day at school, we would have a difficult time with standing in line, taking our turn, staying contained…"

McKnight recalls how the teachers would drive the students across town to a small inclusive park in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to give the children an opportunity to play and enjoy the outdoors. But separating the students from their peers wasn't an ideal solution.

Mindy took her concerns to city officials and encouraged them to create a space where all children in Floyd County could play together, regardless of their ability. After researching the need, and discovering there are thousands of children in the county with a disability, the parks department, county officials, and other community members set out to plan a play area for everyone.

Grand opening of inclusive playground

After years of planning, the new playground at Kevin Hammersmith Memorial Park is now open. Designed by Sinclair Recreation, GameTime's exclusive representative in Indiana, the park includes an accessible splash pad, inclusive zip line, plenty of shaded areas, and ramped access throughout the playground.

Mindy brought her class and four others from Mt Tabor Elementary to the park for the grand opening. The first thing she noticed was the accessible surfacing.

"Some kids are just not real steady on their feet, and this has been amazing — if they fall, they're not going to cut their knees like they would on concrete, they're not going to get the splinters like they would on mulch," she said. "So this is the best of the best."

Children playing on inclusive playground

A playground like this was what she dreamed about, but the community went above and beyond, "said McKnight. "I never ever could have dreamed this big. These kids deserve it. They can play with other children and not be judged."

Mrs. McKnight teaches all of us the importance of championing a cause, and bringing everyone together to make life better for everyone in the community.

3. Joyce Jolley

Jolley Park Inclusive Playground–Morristown, Tennessee

Twenty years ago, Joyce Jolley and her husband Gene traveled to Virginia Beach, VA. They discovered a park designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Gene, a successful business person from Morristown, Tennessee, envisioned a similar park and playground in his hometown.

When Gene passed away in 2021, his wife Joyce wanted to honor his memory by building such a park. She approached the city council and presented her idea for an "all-inclusive park" that was open to everyone but specifically designed with persons with disabilities in mind. Her proposal included a state-of-the-art inclusive playground, accessible restrooms, parking, and shelter areas. 

 

She told the city council that her family would fund and build the park, and when it was finished, she would turn it over to the city. 

The city council meeting erupted in thankful applause. Parks Director Craig Price said, "There's not been a gift to this community like this in a long time." said Craig Price, parks and recreation director.

A year later, the new Jolley Park is a reality. Gene Jolley's portrait is displayed at the playground entrance, and signs designate the space as a National Demonstration Site for inclusive play. Once inside the park, families are greeted with a wide range of fun and inclusive play opportunities.

The entire space is accessible thanks to thoughtful design elements like cushiony poured-in-place rubber surfacing. Ramps provide access for wheelchairs and other mobility devices into and through the play structures. There are musical instruments, games, and activities at ground level seemingly everywhere for children to enjoy.

 

Cunningham Recreation, the exclusive representative for GameTime in Tennessee, designed the new playground.  

Local families and those who live throughout the region love the new park. Susan Schaffer is the grandmother of Zachary, who uses a wheelchair. She said they've never experienced a park that is accessible in this way.

"When they get bigger, they're very hard to carry up a slide, they're very hard to lift and get into a regular swing and then you have to hold them. And this makes it so you don't have to always have your hands on them. And they've got a little bit of freedom," Schaffer said.

Local disability advocates are thrilled with the opportunities Jolley Park provides. 

"It's such a unique opportunity for all children of all ages to be able to play together and build friendships and relationships. I think that's really what's important," said Brad Turner with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. "These sorts of messages are intentional when you create playgrounds for access for all abilities. I think it speaks very directly to children with disabilities and families that you're welcome in this community," Turner said.

What started as an idea in the mind of a local business leader and philanthropist is now a reality. We are inspired by the commitment of the Jolley family to inclusion. You are true community champions.

Be a Champion

These three inclusive playground projects are as unique as the communities they serve, but they all have one thing in common - they are all the result of community champions' hard work and dedication. 

In New Jersey, the Kane family wanted a fun, fair, and equitable place for their son to play. They created a place that is truly a dream come true! A teacher in Indiana wanted a better life for the students in her school and championed a new park for families throughout her city. The Jolleys of Morristown, Tennessee, had a heart for people with disabilities and created a lasting memorial to the family patriarch with an all-inclusive park for the entire region. 

These are community champions, and we are proud to partner with them to make inclusive play possible. If you're ready to join the movement, contact your neighborhood's GameTime inclusive play expert.