In a former life, I took care of an 8 year old autistic boy named Artie. I mostly watched him after school until his parents got home. Artie taught me a lot about life – but sometimes he taught me about how shitty other people are. I remember one afternoon when we were playing outside. A bunch of kids, mostly girls, were also out playing in the neighborhood. We had played with them from time to time before; I think they liked having me (a big kid) around. Artie could see a girl swinging on a swing set in the yard across the street, next to an empty swing. We started walking over, and I’m sure Artie was talking loudly about wanting to swing with this girl. The girl definitely saw us coming.
What happened next made my heart sink. And it made me feel very awful things about an otherwise innocent seeming child. Yes, as we approached, the little girl took off and ran to play with other kids at another house. It was very obvious she was purposefully running away from Artie. Artie just stood there, and as I recall he said something to me like, “Why did she just leave?” If I could have spoken to this little girl, I would have paraphrased a line from “You Can Count on Me” – a random good movie with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo that you should watch when you happen upon it scrolling through the free movies on inDemand:
“Now you just listen to me. I may not be the greatest babysitter in the world, but I’m doing the best I know how. And he doesn’t need you to rub his face in shit… He’s going to find out the world is a horrible place and that people suck soon enough, and without any help from you. Believe me!”
But I’m assuming you’re not supposed to talk like that to little kids. Instead, I took Artie back to his house and put together some awesome activity to take his mind off of that girl. And I never took him to play with those little girls ever again.
I hadn’t thought about that scene for a long time. But a few weeks ago when we had a brief morning of good weather here in Connecticut, upon the recommendation of friends, we took my son to Buckingham Park in Avon. This was our first trip to a playground (yikes, is that bad?) and it was my first time seeing a Boundless Playground. (Side note: it was also my first time seeing a parent reprimand a stranger’s kid, which is a topic for another post…) Boundless Playgrounds is a non-profit organization established in 1997 with the mission to build “inclusive playgrounds where children and adults of all abilities can play and learn together in a fun and welcoming environment.” They have opened more than 200 playgrounds in the U.S. and Canada, including 30 or so Boundless Playgrounds in Connecticut. This playground was ah-mazing. There are ramps throughout that make it easier to navigate to the slides and other play equipment. They have a “Sway Fun” glider that allows able-bodied kids to glide with kids using wheelchairs or other mobility devices. And they also have a section for the little ones. I love that many playgrounds are incorporating design to better allow kids of all abilities to interact.
On this particular Sunday morning, most of the kids playing were the younger siblings of kids playing soccer in the adjacent field. And then once the game was over, the big kids descended upon the playground for about 15 minutes until they all dispersed with their parents. There also was a boy with Down’s Syndrome. His mom was bringing him over to the swings, and I could tell the boy wasn’t too keen on the idea. And I remembered Artie and that awful little girl (I’m sorry, I hold grudges). So I started walking my little son over so he could swing with the boy. By the time we got over to the swings, the boy had moved on to another activity. My point, though, is if you are fortunate enough to have a child without disabilities, it is extremely easy to teach your child to play with all kids, including kids with disabilities. I don’t know whether (and I’m not suggesting that) the little girl’s parents did anything to foster her behavior toward Artie or kids like him. And perhaps I am being too harsh on her. But in any event, I do think we as parents can help our kids navigate this world and prepare them for all the challenges they may encounter by exposing them to a wide range of activities, allowing them to interact with a wide range of people, and most importantly, raising them to believe that the friendships and experiences they can have are boundless.
I’d love to hear about other great parks or inclusive activities you like – please share in the comments!
And if you’re looking for an accessible playground near you, check out this directory.