What is an inclusive playground, and why does it matter?
Our Quest has been working to understand and break down barriers that children in Charlottesville face that keep them from being able to read and play. Last month, we were lucky enough to meet Kara with Bennett’s Village, who taught us so much about Bennett, language, and the power of inclusive play. Our conversations have been wonderful, but for concrete middle school learners, we wanted to give them the opportunity to understand barriers to play firsthand.
The point of this experiment, and our Quest in general, is not pity. Pity and empathy can be very closely linked, and we want to make sure that our students don’t get stuck in the “Oh, I feel so bad for you” mindset. I’m still learning about how to navigate this line, and I’m lucky to have informed and kind friends like Kara to answer questions and keep me in check. She gave me a great reminder that is in the back of my mind as we meet and plan: There is a fine line between empathy and pity. To keep students proactively thinking about including and empowering others – including those overlooked by traditional playgrounds – we’re carefully steering the conversation towards the fun experiences kids can have if they have the support and assistance that they need:
What can we do to make our space more inclusive and welcoming for all?
With this in mind, students headed out to navigate our school’s places for play in five different ways:
- using crutches to move
- wheeling themselves sitting in a wheelchair
- sitting in a wheelchair being wheeled by a helper
- wearing goggles designed to simulate vision impairment
- acting as a caregiver or helper to another student
Students had fifteen minutes to explore our playground area, the turf field where recess classes play, the basketball court, and the main level of the school. They spent some time interacting with other kids on the playground, and some time by themselves. When we met back in the classroom, I asked them to share what they experienced and how it made them feel. First, we had the opportunity to write, and then had a group conversation. Below, find a list of some of our reactions:
- “The list of things I couldn’t do just kept growing.”
- “Someone asked, ‘What is wrong with you? Why do you look like that?’ And I didn’t want to play anymore.”
- “I felt so excluded. I hate being left out.”
- “It felt like everything stood in my way. Everything felt restraining and lonely.”
- “I only did it for five minutes. I can’t imagine a lifetime.”
- “One different or uneven surface could completely mess you up.”
- “I couldn’t do anything without help.”
- “Nothing on our playground was made for a disabled person.”
- “Everything was 10x harder.”
- “Everyone else could play differently than me. I felt alone.”
This experiment really opened our eyes to why an all-abilities playground is so important. Students left the class emotional and frustrated, but I found that they came back the next time we met more determined and passionate than ever. For middle school learners, having the opportunity to see the world in a different way – even if it’s just for a few minutes – can be a powerful and transformative experience. I look forward to continuing our conversations about inclusivity and play, and learning more throughout the semester. As we move forward with our designing, building, fundraising, etc. this semester and beyond, our conversations and experiences from this day are sure to have an impact on our words and actions.
Thank you to Kara and the Bennett’s Village team for donating your time and care to share, open our eyes, and help us learn! You can learn more about Bennett’s Village by visiting their website.