FEB. 2, 2012 -- When the playground at Jaycee Park opens this summer in St. Charles, it will be the fourth fully accessible playground built in the metro area under the careful direction of Natalie Blakemore, executive director of Unlimited Play.
Building inclusive playgrounds that all children can enjoy is Blakemore's mission. An O'Fallon, Mo., mother of three, she simply couldn't find a local playground that allowed her son to play with his peers.
"Zach is in an electric wheelchair, so he doesn't have a lot of upper body strength and coordination," Blakemore explained. A playground is considered ADA compliant if it has a transfer station, a special platform with stairs that leads to the upper levels of the play area. Zach, and many other children with physical disabilities, does not have the strength to pull himself across the platform and up the stairs.
"ADA outlines legally what's accessible," Blakemore said. "For my son, what ADA requires means nothing."
Using her background in recreation management, her own experiences and those shared with her by parents of other children with special needs, through Unlimited Play Blakemore partners with cities and organizations to raise funds, plan and construct inclusive playgrounds that all children can enjoy together.
"Unlimited Play comes in to ensure a playground is truly accessible," she said.
The first playground Unlimited Play helped to build is named after Blakemore's inspiration: her son. Zachary's Playground is in Hawk Ridge Park (8392 Orf Road, Lake St. Louis, Mo., 63367). The playground includes what has become Unlimited Play's hallmarks: imaginative play areas, a variety of different swings, fully ramped access to all levels of the play structure, smooth play surfaces, water and shaded play areas, and metal and roller slides. Learn how these features improve accessibility.
Unlimited Play has also helped construct Tree Top Playground in Shaw Park (27 S. Brentwood Blvd., Clayton, Mo., 63105) and Brendan's Playground, which opened last October, in Paul A. Westhoff Park (810 Sheppard Drive, O'Fallon, Mo., 63366).
The playgrounds Blakemore has helped open are getting rave reviews from neighboring residents and parents of children with special needs. Families have been known to travel from neighboring counties to visit Unlimited Play's playgrounds.
"The kids say this is the best playground around," said Tom Drabelle about Brendan's Playground. Drabelle is the public relations director for the city of O'Fallon. "Several people have come to city council meetings to praise the playground."
Unlimited Play was involved in every step of the development and construction, Drabelle said. Almost 75 percent of the cost of the bug-themed playground was covered by grants or donations.
Construction is still not complete at Brendan's Playground, however. This spring the city plans to open a splash pad, but they need to raise some additional funds.
"It never dawned on me as a parent that there are kids with disabilities who cannot regulate their body temperatures," Drabelle said. Water play features are a lot of fun, but they improve accessibility to a playground by offering kids a way to stay cool, he explained.
The water play area at the planned playground at Jaycee Park (2805 Elm St., St. Charles, Mo., 63301) is one of the park's most exciting features, Blakemore said.
"Other parks have spray pads, but this will be more dramatic and beautiful," she said. The play area, inspired by the Missouri Bluffs, will have water shooting out of rocks and a stream flowing through it, she said.
When the playground opens, kids will be greeted by a giant sculpted apple that will have vines growing on it. Apple trees will surround the nature-themed park, as will a fence, which helps children with autism spectrum disorders understand the park's boundaries, Blakemore said.
According to the city of St. Charles website, the playground will cost $850,000 and so far $530,000 has been raised. Those that would like to contribute to this project can find more information on the St. Charles City Parks & Recreation website.
In addition to working with the city of St. Charles, Blakemore is expanding her reach beyond the St. Louis metro area. She's bringing her message of inclusion to parks throughout the country. She's recently appeared on the Today Show, and Blakemore and Victoria Schmidt Babb, Unlimited Play's community engagement director, were both named the Greatest Person of the Day by the Huffington Post.
"We're really looking for national support to continue to help children play across the nation," Blakemore said. "These parents, they wish so badly that their kids could go and play."
Learn more about Unlimited Play by visiting their website. And be sure to check the Sprout calendar in April for information about Unlimited Play play dates, which will occur once a month at different inclusive playgrounds.
Top: Natalie and Todd Blakemore, vice president of the Unlimited Play board, dreamed of playgrounds accessible to all kids. Now there are three playgrounds in the metro area--and another on the way--where the Blakemore's three kids can play together. The Blakemore kids, from left: Brianna, 10, Zachary, 11, and Cassi, 7.
Bottom: The rendering of the new playground at Jaycee Park highlights fully ramped play areas, water play, shaded pavilions and fencing. See the complete rendering.
Images courtesy of Natalie Blakemore.