Five years ago, Newbury Park Rotarian Ron Block had a vision to fill a need in our community. He began meeting with other local Rotarians to share his vision. He wanted to raise funds to construct a disability-sensitive playground, which would incorporate unique features that cater to the special needs community. One of his first meetings was with Conejo Recreation & Park District General Manager Jim Friedl, a member of the Rotary Club of Thousand Oaks.
Old Meadows Park in Thousand Oaks included a “SensAbility Playground”, an interactive play area stimulating senses and abilities. With new space due to open up at this park location, the timing was perfect to launch the Rotary DreamCatcher Playground. Block soon found support from all five of the local Conejo Valley Rotary Clubs and CRPD’s “Play Conejo” Foundation.
Disability affects approximately 12% of the U. S. population. Because parents, siblings, and grandparents are affected too, the number of people impacted by disability is nearly one third of the population.
The presence of disability affects EVERY area of life for these families, including home life, education, employment, relationships, and even recreation and community involvement. Community playgrounds that are welcoming to children with disabilities offer gathering places that everyone can enjoy, allowing youth with disabilities and their family members to play alongside friends and neighbors.
“I find that the mothers and fathers of children affected with special needs to be some of the most dedicated, loving and bravest people I know”, says Block. “Our community’s acceptance and treatment of folks with developmental disabilities begins with our children and the integration of play among what is called neuro normal kids and those with special needs. Familiarity not only precludes fear but often brings friendship”.
Each feature of the DreamCatcher playground was selected or designed to communicate welcoming of special populations and an awareness of their journey. So far, over $545,000 has been raised to open Phase 1 and Phase 2, and the final leg of this project is due for completion in the summer of 2017. Though the new playground will be specifically tailored for children with special needs, it will be open to everyone and will be conducive to inclusive play.
One set of swings, called a sympathetic swing, is designed to be used by children with and without mobility issues in tandem. It doesn’t require a third person to push. The playground has a rubber surface that is softer than typical play spaces and is geared for children with balance or body control issues. There are nooks and crannies for children to hide and play, helping them to develop spatial awareness. When children with disabilities are having a bad day and exhibiting self-injurious behavior, the best way to calm them is to take them to a safe place outside to play.
Many playgrounds do not include perimeter fencing, yet boundaries are important with special populations. This playground is fenced and will be a place of increased safety and independence for special needs children, while decreasing the supervision strain on caregivers, allowing them to relax and interact with other parents. Children with mobility issues enjoy all types of playground experiences and love to play side-by-side with children who do not have mobility issues.
Playgrounds are very stimulating, often over-stimulating if you are a child with sensory processing issues. This playground will include both active and passive play areas allowing children to engage in stimulating activities to their level of comfort, yet also offering areas to which they can retreat while remaining in proximity to parents and other children.
By placing gathering areas in proximity to play areas, children are encouraged to try social behaviors, knowing that they can remove themselves for personal space and calming if necessary. At the same time, parents and caregivers can gather for support and conversation, yet remain in proximity to their children.
The greater Conejo Valley community is filled with projects that often begin with a dream of one local Rotarian, and supported by our five Conejo Rotary clubs. Like Ron Block, Rotarians just want to give back to make our community stronger.
“A number of things bring a smile to my heart as we near completion of the Rotary DreamCatcher Playground”, says Block. One that stands out is the thought that thousands of children and their parents and friends will benefit from our efforts for years to come! Pericles said it best for me, ‘What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others’”.If you would like to donate to the Rotary DreamCatcher Playground, please logon to playconejo.org/dreamcatcher/