When Lisa Sardinha visited her daughter at Burnsville’s Gideon Pond Elementary last summer, she was surprised to see Victoria and other kids in wheelchairs sitting on the sidelines at recess.
When Sardinha asked why the kids weren’t playing, she was told there was no way for kids with certain physical disabilities to use the out-of-date playground equipment. Even the swing, the teaching assistant said, was unsafe.
“I was like, ‘You’re kidding,’ ” Sardinha said. “I was really upset to see these kids not have an opportunity to play like the other kids.”
This year, Sardinha and a committee of parents and staff members are trying to change things by raising $80,000 for a barrier-free playground that every child can use.
School district officials say Gideon Pond has seen a growing number of children with disabilities, so 7-year-old Victoria won’t be the only beneficiary.
“I’m not only advocating for her, I’m advocating for those kids in the future,” Sardinha said.
Their biggest fundraising project for the playground was last week, when the whole school took part in a “fun run” put on by Apex, a company that helps schools raise money.
After collecting pledges and promising to finish the run, each grade took turns jogging 36 laps around the gym, which was dark except for black lights. Kids scampered through an inflatable tunnel wearing neon bracelets as speakers blared upbeat music.
While the final fundraiser totals haven’t been tallied yet, as of midweek the run had raised $15,000. Sardinha said she believes it was a success.
The old playground equipment will be removed this spring. Sardinha said she hopes the new equipment will go up soon after.
Allison Mischica, a parent volunteer at the run, said she liked that this fundraiser was active.
“It’s better than [selling] wrapping paper,” she said. “They’re more excited about it.”
Making playgrounds inclusive
Victoria has CHARGE syndrome, which affects vision, hearing and balance and causes heart problems. She uses a wheelchair or walker.
Out of about 32 playgrounds in the area, the new playground will be one of only two her daughter can use, Sardinha said.
New or updated playgrounds must comply with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but even ADA compliance doesn’t mean playgrounds are truly accessible for all.
What makes a playground inclusive? Replacing wood chips, which get caught in wheels and make the surface uneven, with a flat, rubberized surface. Ensuring ramps onto play structures are wide enough for wheelchairs. And there must be access to the area that doesn’t involve steps or railroad ties, Sardinha said.
Special equipment, such as accessible swings with harnesses, is also helpful, Sardinha said.
Inclusive playgrounds are important so kids get exercise, but they also help meet children’s social and emotional needs by allowing them to play with peers, said Kitri Kyllo, supervisor of a deaf and hard-of-hearing program at the school.
“When we think of what recess does … there’s a lot that happens there,” Kyllo said. Now, kids with disabilities “don’t have to be left out.”
Principal Chris Bellmont said the playground project is part of the school’s overall effort to be inclusive.
It also benefits the community, which is increasingly filled with young families looking for somewhere to play on the weekends. “The community really leans on this playground,” he said.