Inclusive playgrounds give kids with disabilities an equal chance to join the fun

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Jake’s Place, an inclusive playground, opened this week in Delran, N.J. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jake’s Place, an inclusive playground, opened this week in Delran, N.J. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The unmistakable facade of Independence Hall towered above a slide just inside the entrance to Delran’s newest playground. Tunnels on either side of the play structure connected it to two other Philadelphia symbols that Jim Cummings was eager to show off at Tuesday’s grand opening. 

“We have the Liberty Bell over here. We got Ben Franklin over here,” Cummings said. 

He pointed out the words “equality” and “justice for all” that adorned the Philly-themed complex.

Those ideals are not only represented by replicas of historic landmarks, but they are also at the heart of the mission that makes Jake’s Place Delran unique. It is an “inclusive playground,” designed to be a place where all kids can play together, regardless of disabilities or developmental challenges.

Cummings is a founding member of Build Jake’s Place, the nonprofit behind the playground in Delran and another one like it in Cherry Hill. The Cherry Hill playground, built in 2011, has become recognized across the country for eliminating barriers for children with disabilities. With the passage of state law in New Jersey, the organization’s second inclusive playground, at Delran Community Park will likely be joined by similar parks in the years ahead.

Jake’s Place Delran features wide, gentle ramps. A smooth rubber surface allows easy wheelchair access and helps cushion falls. Just past the Philadelphia landmarks, a ramp with a powder-blue railing resembling the Ben Franklin Bridge leads up to a barn on the “South Jersey” side of the playground. From there, another ramp takes kids “downashore,” and back to ground level.

Hundreds of parents and children showed up for Tuesday’s opening. Even before the ribbon had been cut, the playground was crawling with dozens of kids, including some with special needs. 

“Ready, Chrissy Chris? Here we go!” said Joyce Harris of Beverly, letting go of her daughter’s wheelchair and letting her coast for her father to catch her at the bottom of the ramp.

Harris’ daughter, 12-year-old Christine Shedaker, can’t walk or speak because of a seizure disorder. But the smile on her face spoke for itself.

“We haven’t explored it all yet, but we’re gonna try,” Harris said.

That isn’t something Harris could say about just any playground, even many that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. An amendment to the ADA in 2010 set minimum standards of access that all playgrounds built or altered have since had to comply with. But advocates and parents of kids with special needs say those standards don’t guarantee their children will be able to join in the action. Over the past two decades, they’ve been leading a national movement to build more inclusive or “boundless” playgrounds like Jake’s Place.

Cummings said the types of playground surfaces allowed under the ADA sometimes blocked access entirely.

“They use wood chips, shredded rubber,” he said. “You can’t get a wheelchair through it, you can’t get crutches through it, a walker — you can’t get that through it.”

The rubber surface is just one way Jake’s Place goes above and beyond the ADA.

Ingrid Kanics is an inclusive design specialist and occupational therapist who worked on the Jake’s Place designs. She said the equipment at inclusive playgrounds, like a spinner at Jake’s Place in Cherry Hill, is designed to accommodate disabled children.

“We worked very hard to design that in such a way that, if I’m a wheelchair user that can get out of my wheelchair, that I could actually transfer into that and be with my friends, and we can all spin together,” Kanics said.

Our hard-wired desire for play, she said, is key to learning and development. “And that drive is in every single child, regardless of how medically complicated their diagnosis is.”

Jake’s Place is named after Jake Nasto, the grandson of Cummings and his wife, Lynn. Jake was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare congenital defect that stunted his growth.

“So, for him on a normal playground, the steps are so high,” Lynn Cummings said. That prevented Jake from using many of the playgrounds he visited during physical therapy sessions.

Jake died of complications from heart surgery when he was just 2 years old. But his short life inspired his family to form the nonprofit and begin raising money to build inclusive playgrounds. First, Jake’s Place Cherry Hill and now Jake’s Place Delran, eight years later.

These playgrounds can be expensive to build. It took five years to raise the $700,000 needed to build Jake’s Place Delran. The special “pour-in-place” rubber surface at the Delran playground alone cost more than $200,000.

Jim and Lynn Cummings felt that raising money for inclusive playgrounds wasn’t enough.

“If we’re gonna build these playgrounds and they’re going to cost $600,000 to $700,000, we’re not gonna live long enough to do this,” Lynn Cummings said.

So Build Jake’s Place lobbied the state legislature for Jake’s Law, which was enacted last summer. It offers New Jersey counties an incentive to build more of the equal-opportunity playgrounds by prioritizing them for state Green Acres grants that pay for parks and recreational facilities. The law also directs the Department of Community Affairs to develop statewide standards for inclusive playground design. 

The couple hopes Jake’s Law will make New Jersey a leader in the national movement for inclusive playgrounds. Jim Cummings said he was already getting calls from other New Jersey townships interested in building their own. 

Build Jake’s Place has set its sights on Voorhees as the location of its next playground. According to a list of Green Acres grant applications for 2019 from the state Department of Environmental Protection, Voorhees and Toms River townships have applied for funds for inclusive playgrounds.

“It’s finally time,” Jim Cummings said. “It’s time for people to realize that every kid deserves a great place to play.”

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