For 8-year-old Anna Boltz, play dates at Cuddy Family Midtown Park often begin with a tour of the playground.
As Anna pushes herself up the ramps in her wheelchair, she’s followed closely by Julia, also in a wheelchair, and her twin sister, Gabrielle.
The playground at Cuddy Park, Anchorage’s first inclusive one, was built specifically with children like Anna and Julia in mind. But Anna’s mother, Leah Boltz, says the road to get here has been years in the making.
“Our playground experience before was we would take Anna to the playground and we would carry her up onto things,” says her mom, Leah Boltz. “Which really works when she was little…but as kids get older, they really don’t want their parents to be helping them play all the time.”
Another mother, Christy Jordan, says she had a similar experience when it came to playtime with her son, Elias.
“I used to go to playgrounds and kind of wish no one was there, because I had to help my son so much,” says Jordan. “And so I’d be the mom following him around and making sure he could get on equipment.”
Her son, now 11-years-old, has cerebral palsy and uses forearm crutches to get around. She says the wood chips that are often used to line the surface of playgrounds made it difficult for Elias to even make it to the equipment. And once he did, the equipment itself posed its own problem.
Both Jordan and Boltz had the idea for more accessible playgrounds. Once they finally met — through their children’s physical therapist — they brought their ideas to the muni’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Anchorage Park Foundation. Boltz says their ideas were well received, especially when it came to fundraising.
“We have not had anyone tell us no. It was more people didn’t realize it was a problem,” said Boltz. “So when we went to people and we said, you know, our kids cant get on the playground, they said, ‘Oh, well here — let me write you a check.'”
The opening of the “playground for all” at Cuddy Park was followed by four other inclusive playground openings. Saturday, Sept. 19, Anchorage welcomed its sixth inclusive playground at Dave Rose Park in East Anchorage.
There’s a difference between accessible play and inclusive play, says Josh Durand, Parks and Rec superintendent.
“So accessibility, it’s a law we have to adhere to; we have to make sure people that have mobile disabilities can actually access these assets that we’re providing,” said Durand. “We’ve decided to go beyond accessible playgrounds to doing ones that are inclusive, and essentially what we’re doing, we’re eliminating boundaries within the playground.”
Inclusive playgrounds also engage children on the autism spectrum, like Elias. Cuddy Park’s playground has a few band stations set up with xylophones, drums and maracas.
“To have stuff that’s interesting sounds and interesting touch, just a different type of play, too, which adds to that inclusivity,” Jordan said, adding that inclusive features also add to her son’s independence. “Play is how kids learn. And if a kid is on the sidelines and not able to access equipment, then they can’t be included in the play.”
With every removal of a boundary comes a risk, Boltz says. But the risks and rewards when it comes to Anna gaining her independence are what childhood, in general, is all about.
“There are really no limits for her in this setting and there’s very few settings in life where she’ll be able to experience that,” said Boltz of Anna. “But the playground seems to be the great equalizer for not just kids with disabilities but also kids of all ages.”
A list of the inclusive playgrounds around Anchorage can be found here.