The smile on Sami Gibson Wimberly’s face was surpassed only by the one on her daughter’s.
Mayli no longer needs help to be included in playground activities with other children.
It was Wimberly who was the driving force behind the history-making decision by the Weatherford School District to install Inclusive Playgrounds throughout the district. Now, each of the seven elementary campuses has one of the innovative facilities, and the WISD is believed to be one of the first in the state to achieve this feat.
“This is awesome. I love it,” said 9-year-old Mayli, who has been confined to a wheelchair since she was 18 months old because of spina bifida. “I’m so glad to have my Mom. This is a dream come true.”
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It was Mayli who cut the ribbon at a ceremony at Curtis Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 20, as the district hosted Inclusive Play Day. Shortly after, Mayli was on the playground with her friends enjoying the new equipment. The ceremony included a proclamation from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and recognition from State Rep. Phil King of Weatherford.
An inclusive playground allows physically challenged children to enjoy the same activities as able-bodied children. For example, children in wheelchairs can go where those not in wheelchairs can go, making it a fun playground for kids of all abilities.
There are places where wheelchairs can be parked so when children go down a slide they can easily get back in the chair. Also, elevated transfers make it easy for kids to get out of their chairs onto the slide and other equipment. Kids can climb on specially made equipment with finger grips to pull themselves along.
There are also other elements that provide opportunities for cognitive and sensory development, like musical pieces that give kids a chance to have some fun drumming and playing with chimes.
“I would say the slide is my favorite part,” Mayli said, looking eager to go back down for about the fifth time. Meanwhile, her friends all wanted to take turns taking her wheelchair to meet her at the bottom.
“Parks have always been an issue for her,” Sami said. “At a typical park, they’ll have a ramp that goes right into wood chips, and they have high stairing.
“When she started kindergarten I’d come up here and help her play. I’d be her legs.”
As time went on, though, Mayli wanted her independence.
“She’d come home crying. She has great friends, and they wanted to play with her, but they couldn’t on the old playground because it just wasn’t equipped for her,” Sami said. “Play time was an anxious time for her.”
Now, it’s an exciting time.
“It went from segregation to integration and inclusion immediately,” said Bryan O’Conner, president of Total Recreation Products, the exclusive Texas representative for parent company GameTime (a PlayCore company). “Kids were practically fighting over who could help her (Mayli). She was in the game, not on the side anymore.
“We don’t build a playground for the special needs child, we build a playground for everybody.”
O’Conner noted that though a playground might be approved through the Americans with Disabilities Act, that doesn’t make it inclusive.
“A lot of people think a ramp makes everything accessible, but a fully Inclusive Playground goes beyond accessibility and looks at the needs of every child, regardless of ability. This is a playground for everyone,” he said.
The idea to install Inclusive Playgrounds began in 2014 when Weatherford Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Hanks contacted O’Conner. Once several families got word of this discussion, they voiced their desire for the idea to become a reality, led by Sami.
Mayli’s school, Curtis Elementary, where she is in the fourth grade, was the first to have one installed after the project began in March.
“Everybody deserves that parallel and equal opportunity to play with each other. I think you’ve hit it out of the park here,” GameTime Regional Manager Bill Patterson said.
There are a few other Inclusive Playgrounds scattered around the Fort Worth area. In fact, the city of Weatherford has one at Heritage Park. The city of Fort Worth has one at LeBlanc Park. Kooken Elementary, the early learning center in Arlington, has one.
But it is believed Weatherford is the first school district to install them at all elementary campuses. And while that is something of which Hanks said he is extremely proud, he also said, “It was just the right thing to do.”
The venture cost the Weatherford ISD around $1 million out of its general fund, an expenditure approved unanimously by the board of directors, board president Mike Guest said.
“Everything you see here today is because a mother loved her child,” Guest said.
Patterson said the playgrounds are not only to be enjoyed by children during school hours. He said they are available to families at other times as well.
“I hate it when a school locks the gates on a playground and says, ‘We’ll see you at 8 o’clock in the morning,’” he said. “We’ve got an environment here where people will want to come up on weekends, hold birthday parties, this works for grandma to come up with her grandchildren.”
Sami said that while some might ask why such a playground wasn’t invented long ago, sometimes it just takes someone stepping forward to emphasize the need.
“If you don’t live it, you don’t always recognize the need. I never paid attention before, not that I didn’t care, but when I had Mayli I began to see where she couldn’t go,” Sami said. “But thanks to this, a playground is no longer one of those places.”