It used to be that every time Natalie Blakemore’s son, Zachary, went to a playground, he could only watch from the sidelines as other kids played. But a trip to Washington D.C. changed everything: an inclusive playground there allowed Zachary to use his walker and play throughout the recreation area. “That day was precious,” Blakemore recalls. “To have that brief moment where he could just be a kid and play was priceless.”
The Blakemores soon found they were one of many families in the St. Louis community and across the country who had a child with disabilities preventing them from playing on typical playgrounds—so they decided to build their own. “The whole goal is to get people with and without disabilities playing side-by-side,” Blakemore says.
With her background in recreation management and experience caring for a child with disabilities in tow, Blakemore, along with her husband, Todd, launched Unlimited Play Inc. in 2003. By spring of 2007, their dream of a fully accessible place for all to play came to fruition with Zachary’s Playground in Lake St. Louis.
Upon the playground’s opening, the Blakemores immediately received positive feedback—and requests for even more inclusive playgrounds to be built across the region. “We got calls from around the country from families who wanted to play,” Blakemore says. So Unlimited Play’s three-person staff and 30-plus volunteers responded to that need, rolling out Tree Top Playground in Shaw Park in Clayton, and Brendan’s Playground and Discovery Playground in O’Fallon, where more than 100,000 annually play. And in the works are even more all-access play places—some named in honor of a child who is living with—or lived with—a disability. Currently under construction are three more playgrounds, with 11 more planned—from downtown St. Louis to Illinois, Wisconsin, and even Texas.
By meeting or exceeding standards set by the American Disabilities Act, the inclusive playgrounds allow kids and adults with disabilities—18.7 percent of the nation's population according to the U.S. Census Bureau—full access to recreation and social interaction, Blakemore explains. Unique features include ramps onto every piece of equipment, shaded structures and splash pads for kids who are unable to regulate their body temperatures, climbing nets with seats for those who need them, metal and roller slides instead of plastic ones for those with cochlear implants, musical and other sensory items to appeal to all the kids' senses, and tile or rubberized surfacing in place of the traditional gravel or mulch-covered floors that can cause falls and impede those with wheelchairs or walkers.
It touches Blakemore’s heart to see the interaction of families who can now play together. “Once, I met a family at Zachary’s Playground, and the 21-year-old daughter was able to swing for the first time. Her father had tears running down his face—it was so touching.” Blakemore also remembers a 9-year-old boy at Brendan’s Playground. “He had a walker, and he said, I can’t really do anything here,” she recalls. But soon, with Blakemore’s help, the boy realized he could get on and off the equipment by himself. “His eyes got bigger and bigger as he realized more and more he could do; and within minutes, he ran off to play with other kids on the playground.” The self-esteem and confidence that builds in the kids is amazing to watch, Blakemore says. “It’s those moments where I get to see how much it means to the families we are serving that are the most rewarding. For them to have that day to play together creates lifelong memories.”
Volunteer Spotlight: Kathleen Murphy
Kathleen Murphy knows what it’s like to sit on the sidelines while others interact on traditional playgrounds. “I am paralyzed from the waist down and use a manual wheelchair, so I was not able to go to with my nieces and nephews to playgrounds because they were inaccessible to wheelchairs.”
That’s one reason she became involved with Unlimited Play Inc. Like founders Natalie and Todd Blakemore, Murphy desired a playground where families with and without disabilities could play together. And the Blakemores inspired Murphy with their dedication, continuing to build fully accessible playgrounds beyond Zachary’s Playground, named after the couple's son. “Todd and Natalie were doing this for more than just their son,” she notes.
As a former teacher and principal, Murphy knew Unlimited Play was an opportunity to teach students—and all ages—some important life lessons. “When a playground is accessible, it’s a good learning experience—kids become aware of what other kids with disabilities can do. And the more positive learning experiences we have with each other, the less we will want to bully or make fun of others.” She used her education career background and experience spreading disability awareness to form a dedicated board for the charity. “There were parents, even those without kids with disabilities, who felt it was unfair that some families were unable to play,” she explains.
Kids who have disabilities still want to be kids, Murphy emphasizes. “Some of us make assumptions of what is possible or not for those with disabilities. But kids’ desire to want to play and interact with other kids is not diminished because they have a disability.”
For more information, visit unlimitedplay.org.