Residents spearhead construction of a fully inclusive playground

by Mary McKenna

When you’re a kid, nothing says happiness like five more minutes of playtime. Throw in some friends and a cool playground, and you’ve got the proverbial icing on the cake. This is something 6-year-old Isabella Higgins knows by heart. Unfortunately, it’s also something that’s often just out of reach for her here in Hudson.

Isabella was born with a neuromuscular disorder affecting her balance, body awareness and movement. When her mom, Megan Higgins, noticed Isabella loved to play with friends at playgrounds but inevitably wound up “by herself ” because she couldn’t play on a lot of the equipment there, she decided to do something about it.

“Hudson has so many opportunities to offer Isabella,” Higgins said, “but the one area it’s lacking is its playgrounds.”

Higgins said she’s identified a need for greater accessibility in the city’s play spaces – all of which are ADA compliant but none of which are fully inclusive. According to Higgins, it was this need that prompted her to problem-solve, research and ultimately propose the construction of what would be an all new, aptly named “inclusive playground” to both the city council and Hudson Park Board.

“There is a misunderstanding that ADA accessible and inclusive are one in the same,” she explained. “ADA access is the law and the absolute bare minimum standard, and inclusion goes above and beyond that. An ADA-compliant playground does not mean it’s inclusive, however an inclusive playground is always ADA compliant.”

What an inclusive playground offers that other play spaces don’t, Higgins said, is an engaging area that children and adults of all abilities can use, from the typical developing child to those who have disabilities with mobility or auditory, visual or sensory challenges.

“These are the playgrounds you walk into and think, ‘Wow! This is a fantastic playground!’” she said.

From ground-level merry-go-rounds to tandem zip lines, ramps and sensory gardens, a distinction Higgins made again and again is that inclusive play spaces may differ from their “old school” models in design but most definitely not in fun factor.

“I take my niece, who is a typical developing 9-year-old, to play with Isabella and the first thing she asks me is, ‘Are we going to a fun playground or a boring playground?’” she said. “The inclusive playgrounds are just more fun!”

Higgins is not alone in her vision for a better way to play. A committee of nine other Hudsonites lends support and expertise to the dream and design of this new play structure. They include pediatric physiatrist Dr. Adam Bartlett, who works with kids with special needs. Bartlett stressed the importance of inclusive play in a child’s broader social/emotional growth. He said the sense of community and peer interaction a playground like this offers both children with special needs and their neurotypical peers and siblings is paramount.

“The types of features we’re talking about is where kids can play together,” Bartlett said. “It’s not ‘You’re here on your special swing, and we’re here on this regular swing.’ It really is an evolution toward a gold standard with special needs, which is maximum inclusion. I personally see this project as a way to extend what we already do a good job of in our schools to our larger community.”

Examples of similar structures nearby are few, Higgins said. Silver Springs Park in Stow is only “partially inclusive,” said Higgins, while fully inclusive parks like Preston’s Hope in Beachwood and Mila’s Way in Randolph are at a greater distance.

At the March 20 park board meeting, commissioners voted to recommend to city council that the former YDC property be the site for a 5-acre inclusive park. The park would be tucked into the western end of the YDC parcel, south of Hines Hill Road. The board’s second choice was Middleton Road Park.

Higgins, for one, is excited to see this dream become a reality.

“Once we get the location we can begin funding. Ideally, I’d love for this playground to break ground summer of 2024,” she said.

Anyone interested to learn more or track posts and progress as this project unfolds can visit Facebook page, Hudson Inclusive Playground.

Featured Photo: Owen Schoff, 6, and Isabella Higgins, 6, play together at Mila’s Way inclusive playground in Randolph, Ohio. Isabella’s mom, Megan, leads an effort to build something similar in Hudson. Photo submitted.