Cody Goldberg - Play for all

Play is serious business. Just ask any of the thousands of volunteers who raised more than $1 million in cash and other donations to help build Harper’s Playground, Portland’s first ever all-inclusive playground. We all agree that giving everyone the opportunity to join in the fun and enrichment that play allows is worth the effort.

After years of passionate fundraising — bake sales, auctions, concerts and countless pitches for funding — Harper’s Playground now is a smashing success. The ribbon cutting was attended by the mayor, mayor-elect, city and state officials and nearly 1,000 neighbors, all there to celebrate an accomplishment. Children stayed and played for hours following the ceremony.

“You made a lot of people happy today,” said Portland parent Shannon Sandri. “The diversity of kids playing was phenomenal. Thank you for all you’ve done. Thank you for changing the landscape of my daughter’s childhood. We’re pretty lucky to live in this neighborhood.”

But success is best measured by the crowds of kids and parents who swarm into the park now on any typical day. Harper’s Playground has become a gathering place for children and parents. Where before a lackluster climbing structure stood, the site has transformed into a vibrant community center.

Here’s how it all began. I took my daughter, then 4 years old, to our neighborhood park (Arbor Lodge Park), which then was not much different than dozens of Portland area public parks. You know the scene: some sort of metal climbing structure painted in primary colors and surrounded by a bed of wet, lumpy sawdust, some swings, also in sawdust. My daughter, Harper Rose, is a physically challenged jewel who relies on wheels and other aids for mobility. She could not enter this playground, and even if she could, the activities it provided were completely unsuitable. Due to the design of the playground structure, she was left out. The only kids who could use such a playground were able to play anywhere, yet they were also deprived of playing with all the excluded children such as my daughter. The exclusion was a knife that cut deeply in both directions.

I went home and researched accessible playgrounds and discovered that many things could be done to include everyone. But Portland’s playgrounds didn’t offer these features. I called the city parks department and was told that they would love to build such a thing, but they lacked the money. I asked them whether it could be built if I raised the money, and they said yes. But I had to raise close to $1 million. Fast-forward, we did it.

The history of how and what we did is better told in another venue. But what I’ve learned about play and the importance of play is compelling. Turns out play is essential to our very survival. Everybody would benefit from being more playful more often. It is that simple. I think the National Institute for Play puts it best:

“Play is the gateway to vitality. By its nature, it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community. Each of these play by-products are indices of personal health, and their shortage predicts impending health problems and personal fragility. Play trumpets the body and mind to heed its call to action. Its physical manifestations in children alter the appetite’s ‘set point,’ acting thereby as an antidote to obesity.”

With this in mind, I propose the state of play in this country is failing miserably. We do a decent job of offering extra play opportunities to those children who need it least, while ignoring the children who need help the most. I’m talking about typical playgrounds, designed specifically to benefit kids who can play anywhere. Most children who are “typically developing” are able to play wherever they choose. Children who experience disability, especially those who rely on wheeled options such as walkers or wheelchairs, are totally excluded by the non-accessible design of most playgrounds. It is an outrage that the 22-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act continues to be followed merely to the letter of the law — the minimum level of accommodation at best.

I’m thrilled that the City of McMinville is on course to address the disparity of play opportunities by moving to install something similar to our new Portland playground. Harper and our whole family stand ready to assist you. You can do it!

Local playground
McMinnville Noon Kiwanis Club has contributed $33,000 for development of a barrier-free playground in McMinnville. The money provides a base for the collection of other funds, both public and private, to finance design and development of an all-inclusive playground where children can play together, learn and have fun. On June 5, the McMinnville Parks and Recreation Department held its first public meeting to assess the need and gather input. Families of children with disabilities are especially invited to take an active role in the project. More public meetings will be announced.

Guest writer Cody Goldberg is executive director of Harper’s Playground and Harper’s father. He has a degree in film and television studies. He loves athletics, the outdoors and games of all kinds. He and his wife, April, live in Portland with their two daughters.

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