Freedom Playground set to open this summer

by Alfred Hood 

Freedom Playground, an all-ages, special needs-inclusive recreation area, is poised to open this June in Elmwood Park as a welcoming haven for all. 

The moniker “Freedom Playground” arose from a survey conducted on several hundred Independence citizens. Drawing inspiration from the city’s name, it also conveys the playground’s all-inclusive nature.

The park is an upgrade to the existing Annex Playground, which was relocated from its former home at the Civic Center. It was previously known as the Fire Station Playground prior to the fire station’s relocation, and kept its original equipment even after the move.

Said Recreation Director Tom Walchanowicz, “[The original equipment] was well overdue of being replaced. You couldn’t even get parts for it anymore.”

The new playground will feature slides, merry-go-rounds, spring riders inspired by police cars and fire trucks, as well as accessible equipment catering to special needs children. The incorporation of fire poles pays homage to the nearby fire station. 

Complementing the accessible features are motion-inclusive games designed for wheelchair users. “It has a sensory and audio aspect to enjoy,” said Ryan Wancata, recreation department manager and playground safety inspector. “This opened the door for us to use the name ‘Freedom’ because this is providing a freedom of accessibility to children.”

Future plans include expanding the selection of motion-inclusive equipment, building on the success of Liberty Playground additions made in 2020.

Wancata explained, “Liberty Playground currently has sidewalks surrounding the playground, poured-in-place rubber for surfacing and various adaptive pieces that are for children with disabilities. Some of the pieces include sensory, audio and cognitive-related play features.”

The estimated cost of the playground is $100,000. Funding sources included $6,000 from the city of Independence and $10,000 in donations from groups including the Kiwanis Club and the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland.

Unlike its predecessor situated in the center of a grass field, the new playground will be encircled by sidewalks, enhancing accessibility. The addition of trees will increase shade around the area and offer an aesthetic appeal.

Once open, Freedom Playground is set to host the Star Camp, a four-to-six-week program tailored for individuals with special needs and staffed by intervention specialists and movement specialists. Typical peers trained in disabilities serve as role models.

“We really have a heart for being all inclusive here and trying to help out everyone that we can,” said Walchanowicz.

The popular program, currently held at Elmwood Park, has been running for over 12 years and has reached maximum capacity for the past 8 years.

“The camp travels throughout the park through the month of July and uses various buildings, playgrounds and the outdoor pool,” said Wancata. ∞

Photo: Pictured are renderings of the equipment that will be part of the playground. Photo submitted.