(WSB photo: From left, Cyrus, Tessa, Makenzie, Ellen)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Not counting schools, West Seattle has more than a dozen public playgrounds.
None, however, is an “inclusive” playground.
Though years past playground age themselves, a group of 8th graders at Explorer West Middle School (WSB sponsor) is hoping their work will change that.
And they hope someone reading this – maybe you? – can and will help make it happen.
We first heard about this via e-mail from one of the group members, Makenzie White, and days later, sat down with her and her classmates, Ellen Applewhite, Tessa Wassermann, and Cyrus Storlie, to find out about the project. You might already have heard about it – as part of their work, they have canvassed The Junction to gather signatures in support of their goal.
Makenzie explained that most playgrounds aren’t accessible to children with disabilities – both developmental and physical – because of the way they are built. “It’s really important that every child has a place to play.” And childhood play is what “develops imagination and creativity.” (The idea particularly resonates with her because, she explained, her mom is an occupational therapist who works with children with autism.)
Right now, Seattle has only one inclusive playground in a public park: The Children’s PlayGarden at Colman Playfield (1745 24th Avenue South). They say another is planned in North Seattle. But nothing in West Seattle, the city’s largest neighborhood with 100,000 residents.
Cyrus said that with up to 1 in 50 children in the city considered to be on the autism spectrum, eight of Seattle’s 400 parks should have accessible playgrounds, not just one.
Asked for examples of what this playground would offer, they explained the additions can be simple – a ladder that is marked with numbers showing that you are to climb it from 1, on the bottom, to 10, on the top. The playground would offer places to relax the senses as well as stimulate them; the PlayGarden has “dark places with trees where you can go if overwhelmed.”
The students, of course, know that because they took a field trip to investigate: “Every activity is all-accessible, with easy transitions between activities.”
They’ve also learned what it takes to make something like this happen, and they realize they’ve only just started to climb the ladder – but they’re all heading off to different high schools, and trying to find a way for their work not to be in vain.
They’ve written letters to city officials. The replies they received included one from City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who suggested they contact Deputy Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams. She also mentioned the Neighborhood Matching Fund as a way to raise money. On Williams’ behalf, the students said, a planning manager replied, also with information about how to raise money for a project like this. The chair of the council’s Parks Committee, Councilmember Jean Godden, they said, also replied, and told them she would research the idea.
Their main goal was to raise awareness, however, before getting to a point involving raising money, and also to start rallying support, which is why they tried a pilot signature-gathering campaign – 66 in just four hours in The Junction.
They also have been trying to find out if any West Seattle groups are focused on autism and might already have been working on this; at the time of our conversation last week, they hadn’t found one.
Sitting in on our interview, their teacher Tim Owens stressed that the project is entirely the students’ creation – they’ve done all the research and are hoping someone will pick up the proverbial ball and run with it. It started with an assignment he gives eighth-graders dubbed the “You Can Change The World” Project, challenging them to meet in groups to “think of a sustainability problem that needs action, then do research and plan action.”
This week at EWMS, this group and seven others will be presenting their projects to a “panel of experts,” including community members and board members. Each student also has prepared a written report.
But the school year ends in a few weeks. The students say they’ve talked a bit about continuing their work into the summer, but aren’t sure if that’s a realistic option. It’s clear they don’t want to see it hit a dead end – they bubble over with enthusiasm as they talk about how an inclusive playground in West Seattle “would give (more) kids a chance to integrate with other kids, become less isolated.”
Since these playgrounds are so few and far between, they discovered families have even moved to be closer to one. But that’s not feasible for most, they realize.
So here’s what they’re hoping for:
*To connect with any West Seattle autism advocates/groups
*Whether via those advocates/groups or someone else, to find someone who could help champion this
*For people who support the idea to write to their government representatives
If you can help with any of the above – or have a suggestion in general – e-mail the group via Makenzie, at firstname.lastname@example.org.