Right to Play, Inc. began when I read of a very special playground in West Hartford, CT. The community built this very unique playground in memory of a child, Jonathan, who died due to complications from Spinal Muscular Atrophy. This project was the brainchild of Jonathan’s parents. I was so moved by this story a friend and I flew to West Hartford for a tour of the playground, Jonathan’s Dream. There I discovered a magnificent playground where children in wheelchairs and children that were developmentally disabled, along with children with sensory disabilities were playing side-by-side with children with no special needs. I also visited an organization, the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, Inc.®, that provided technical assistance and guidance to other communities who would like to build similar playgrounds. I immediately decided Shreveport should have a Boundless Playground®. Upon returning home, I convinced six other people to join me and together, we founded Right to Play, Inc. a 501(c)(3) organization for the sole purpose of designing and building one.
This journey began in 1999. There are seven of us that serve voluntarily as the board members of RTP. We do not have any paid positions or staff. No member of our board even has a child with a disability. Designing and building this playground has been a labor of love and dedication. It took a year for Shreveport’s City Attorney to give us permission to design this playground. After researching various sites to build the playground, we decided the A. C. Steere Park would be the most convenient place. It is centrally located and accessible by bus. The paved walking path that surrounds the park would make it easier for children and adults with limited mobility to access the playground. However, there were problems with this site. The available acre that was not being used always flooded when it rained. In fact, the entire 11 acres had problems being soggy and unusable after an extended rain. Plus there was the issue that A.C. Steere Park is owned by the Caddo Parish School Board and leased to the City. It took months to acquire a lease between RTP the City and the CPSB. Part of the agreement was that when we built the playground, we would install drains that would improve the drainage of the entire 11 acre site. All of this had to take place before we could even begin to raise the necessary funds. We were very pleasantly surprised when Shreveport Public Assembly and Recreation (SPAR) informed us that a previous bond issue had earmarked $70,000 for improvements to A.C. Steere Park. These funds were given to RTP to use.
To begin the design process, RTP hosted meetings with parents of special needs children, physical and occupational therapists, educators (both special ed as well as normal), artists, landscape specialists, members of SPAR and other people that were interested in building this playground. The general consensus of these adults was that the playground should meet the needs of all children, be safe and offer play situations that would invite children to challenge themselves. The parents of special needs children had an additional request in that we offer more than one way for their children to get on and off the main play structure.
In addition, RTP conducted a Dreaming and Design Party attended by children with and without special needs. We discovered that the majority of the children wanted to be able to get up high, play in water and swing. The children with special needs wanted to be able to play “just like all the other kids”. The majority of the desires of both groups have been met.
The Leaps and Bounds Playground is the first Boundless Playground in Louisiana and one of the largest in the country. At first glance, Leaps and Bounds is just another playground. Examined closer, the unique aspect of this playground is revealed. The play structure for 5 – 12 year olds covers approximately 5,000 square feet with a special rubberized surface that provides cushioned safety and wheelchair accessibility. It has ramps, bridges and walls that enable children and adults in wheelchairs, as well as children who are blind, to access all levels, including those that rise over six feet high. Slides with wheelchair transfer capability, play panels, talk tubes, climbers, crow’s nests, balance pods and therapeutic rings offer opportunities for play. There are activities to stimulate the senses and places that provide quiet and solitude for children with autistic disorders. Other structures require a child to balance, therefore helping to improve coordination. The entire playground is designed to have lesser challenging areas coexist next to higher challenging areas to facilitate communication between all children. This design allows children of all abilities (those with special needs and those without) to play together, each at their highest level of ability. The water play area, with water spraying from flower and rainbow structures, provides sensory experiences, in addition to fun and relief from the summer heat.
There are swings sets for children without disabilities as well as high backed ones for children that lack upper body control. There is even a glider swing able to accommodate a wheelchair with additional seating for other children and adults. There is a beautiful garden – music area. It includes three wind sculptures, two drums in the shape of animals (children who are blind can guess the shape and children who are deaf can feel the sounds) and five freestanding, outdoor musical instruments. The two raised garden beds are built at a height to enable those in wheelchairs the ability to see, touch, smell and taste the plants.
The playground cost in excess of $850,000 to build. To raise the additional funds, I took grant writing classes and was successful in getting foundations such as The Beard Family Foundation, The Community Foundation, The Ludwick Foundation and others to donate large amounts of money. I talked to individuals, church and synagogue congregations and every service club that would listen. When talking didn’t help, I begged. Our board searched for business and individuals that would donate material and labor or at least give us large discounts. AEP/SWEPCO has given us yearly grants and sponsored many volunteer days. In 2006, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of LA honored me as one of eight recipients of their Angel Award. This honor came with a $20,000 donation to RTP. Volunteer labor installed all the shredded rubber surfacing and equipment that did not have to be professionally installed. Over the years, volunteers have provided at least $150,000 worth of labor. We currently host groups of volunteers throughout the year to help maintain the landscape, replenish the shredded rubber, pick up trash, etc.
Our goal is to encourage other communities to provide playgrounds that are accessible to all children. We truly believe that through playing together; social barriers that may exist between children and adults of different colors, religions, ethnicities and abilities will be reduced, and even erased, just as the barriers to a rigorous, challenging and fun playground are removed by the “Leaps and Bounds” project.
Karen G Gordon, DVM
Right to Play, Inc. President
* Sadly, The National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, Inc.® is no longer in existence. To learn more about how The National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, Inc.® came into being, follow our link to Boundless Playgrounds under the About Us tab.