BETHESDA — BETHESDA -- Three years ago, Shelley Kramm, a mother from Potomac, stunned me during a meeting when she told me that her two daughters would never be able to play together at a playground.
Hadley, her younger daughter who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, always had to stay on the sidelines while her sister and other able-bodied children got to climb, swing and have fun.
Shelley told me how heartbreaking it was to watch Hadley be excluded because her wheelchair could not get to the play equipment. The wood chip surface made it impossible for the wheelchair to move around the play area and, even if she was able to navigate the surface, the jungle gym and swings and other equipment were not designed to accommodate children with special needs.
Shelley wanted to build Maryland's first fully handicapped-accessible park and needed help getting money for it. She envisioned the playground as a magical place where children of all abilities could play together, where barriers between the disabled and able-bodied would be eliminated. Shelley wanted to design a park where parents and children could talk about disabilities and physical challenges and learn from each other.
Working together, Shelley and I got $350,000 in state funding for Hadley's Park. We got Montgomery County to contribute $150,000 and, with strong support from the community, raised the additional $250,000 in cash. The land was donated by the Maryland-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission. Countless businesses and individuals donated time and services to make Hadley's Park a reality. Opened in 1999, the park is now one of the most popular in all of the state.
After Hadley's Park's opening, many parents contacted me to express appreciation but also to stress the need for more parks like Hadley's all over Maryland. Some of the families told me that they drove for more than two hours to reach the park because it is the only one in Maryland that their children can use.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening allocated $1 million to build 10 universally accessible playgrounds throughout the state so children of all abilities will be included in the fun.
The goal is to ensure that there will be a "boundless playground" within a short drive of every child. The state's funding has already been matched by a $250,000 grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore. Communities that receive state dollars will be asked to match each state dollar with 50 cents. This $1.75 million initiative makes Maryland the first state in the nation to address playground accessibility for all children.
What makes a boundless playground unique?
Architectural barriers are removed so that children using walkers, walking sticks, crutches or wheelchairs find it easy to get into the play space. The ground covering is soft and rubberized, making it easily navigable by wheelchairs or three-wheeled bikes. Each of the jungle gym clusters has ramps, making them easily accessible to all children, and they are brightly colored to aid children with vision impairment.
The swings are designed to give additional support to children with limited body control, the see-saws include back supports and the slides have a place for a child to transfer directly from a wheelchair to the top of the slide. The character of a boundless playground is multi-sensory and should always include a healthy helping of natural materials, including shade trees and plants with fragrant scents.
A boundless playground is not just about fun. The goal is to help children attain their highest level of physical, emotional and social development, sparking their cognitive development. By providing a sensory rich, developmentally appropriate outdoor play environment, children of all abilities, including those with mental retardation and learning disabilities, gain an increased sense of confidence and independence.
Perhaps the most distinct feature of a boundless playground is that you see children of all abilities -- kids in wheelchairs as well as kids running around in Nikes -- playing together, laughing, giggling and having fun. The walls of misunderstanding and apprehension about disabilities are being knocked down daily through children having fun together.
Communities interested in creating a boundless playground are encouraged to apply for state funds and to call 877-BOUNDLESS.
They will receive technical design support from the state's partner in this initiative, Boundless Playgrounds Inc. (BPI), the national leader in designing universally accessible playgrounds. BPI, a nonprofit group, will also provide fund-raising assistance.
Mark K. Shriver is a Democratic member of the House of Delegates from Montgomery County. He chairs the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families.