Give The Gift Of Play

one of the great pleasures of long, warm days is heading to the park after dinner. The kids think you’re the best for letting them get in an extra hour of play, while you think it’s the best that you get to cool it on a bench. But the playground is so much more than a fun way to tire out your
tykes: Child-development research shows that it’s an important place they learn to challenge themselves, to cooperate, and to figure out what kinds of people they want to form relationships with— crucial experiences many children with disabilities miss out on because they don’t live near a playground equipped for their needs. St. Louis mom Natalie
Mackay, 40, has made it her mission
to change that.
Natalie’s oldest child, Zachary,
was born with a rare nervous
system disease that limits his
ability to move. In 2001, looking
to give the then 10-month-old
some respite from nonstop doctors’
appointments, she decided
to introduce him to the simple
joy of being pushed in a swing:
“I put him in one of those infant
bucket swings, and with one
gentle push, his little body
slumped over. It just about broke
me. It felt like even the right to
play was being taken from him.”
Then, in 2003, on a family trip
to the East Coast, Natalie and
Zachary visited a universally
accessible playground meant to
accommodate children of all abilities.
“There were ramps to the
tops of the tallest slides and spaces
that enabled him to play side by
side with typically developing
kids,” she says. “I remember when
I was growing up, all the kids
who were different were off in a
different classroom in a different
hallway. But a universally accessible
playground would allow kids
to actually get to know Zach. To
me, it was hope that he wouldn’t
just be ‘the little boy in the wheelchair’
to other kids.”
So Natalie—who, before
becoming a full-time mom to
three kids (now 17, 15, and 12),
earned her undergrad degree in
recreation management—got to
work: “I called five cities in our
county and said, ‘If I handle all
the fund-raising, would you allow
me to build an inclusive playground?’”
Her nonprofit, Unlimited
Play, has since opened
17 playgrounds in seven states,
with at least 10 more on the way.
Missouri mom Kim Gibson
watched in awe the first time her
wheelchair-bound daughter,
Gracie, hit one of the new
universally accessible playgrounds:
“She happily said,
‘Go away; I don’t need you!’
With the playground’s special
f looring, she could drive her
chair alongside kids with mobility
and do exactly what they
were doing. It was inclusive for
literally every child there. I just
felt completely comfortable
sitting down and watching her
interact.” And that’s exactly as
it should be. —Jessica Press