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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Mike Klingaman

Leaps and bounds: Inclusive playgrounds provide those with cognitive, sensory and communicative disabilities a place for fun exploration

BALTIMORE -- Talia Stettner is a whirlwind, an Energizer bunny with boundless pep and the restless spirit to test its depth. For the autistic 8-year-old, the living room sofa is less a seat than a trampoline. There’s a hammock swing in the basement of her family’s home in Fulton and hiking trails nearby to route her vigor. But Talia’s favorite exercise venue is the playground at Schooley Mill Park, in Highland, Maryland, a recreation site recently renovated to fit the needs of the disabled.

One of four “inclusive” playgrounds in Howard County, Schooley Mill reopened in February, following a three-year upgrade of the 30-year-old facility to make it accessible to all. In 2021, renovations enhanced playgrounds at Savage Park, Centennial Park North and Blandair Regional Park for those with cognitive, sensory and communicative disabilities.

Schooley Mill Park is located 10 minutes from their home and is a plus for his daughter, Andy Stettner said.

“Talia is a sensory kid who is always on the go. It’s important for her to do something physical; it makes her less anxious,” Stettner said. “She is always happy to get there and play on the various toys on which she can climb, twirl around and swing, even sideways. Talia loves the bigger swings and extra-large seesaws, which tend to be easier [to manage] for kids with disabilities. The equipment is all kind of connected and ramped, and the whole playground is fenced so [parents] can relax, knowing that their kids won’t ‘elope’ [wander off].”

Schooley Mill boasts different slides, a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round and a bevy of musical instruments posted at various stations in the farm-themed playground. There is also a communications board to help those, like Talia, with limited verbal skills but who can point to where they want to play.

“The board is similar to what she has on her iPad,” Stettner said. “But having it there for all to see is a great idea because it shows others how autistic kids can communicate.”

Weekday afternoons are Talia’s favorite time to visit; the playground is quieter then, her father said. But that may change as word of Schooley Mill’s face-lift spreads.

All told, Stettner said, the recreation area is “a hidden gem that most people don’t know about. It’s a playground with different ‘feel-good’ stimulations which help [autistic children] feel normal. Kids with disabilities want to play like everyone else, and the opportunity to do that means a lot.”

Talia, who has two older siblings, attends the Gateway School in Baltimore, said her father, who is deputy director for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor and vice president of the Howard County Autism Society. The county’s move to upgrade its play areas — an afterthought, perhaps, in other regions — speaks for its resolve, he said.

“This community has a deserved reputation as a place where those with disabilities are welcome, from cafes to grocery stores to gyms, and a lot of people relocate here because of that,” Stettner said. “We’ve come a long way in making our country truly inclusive. But it has been a relatively recent journey, in just the last 40 years. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a long way to go.”

How do other disabled kids rate the playgrounds? Recently, after a two-hour evening romp at Blandair Regional Park near his home in Columbia, Jasim Newton tugged at his mother’s sleeve.

‘Mommy, it’s dark,” the 4-year-old said. “Can you make the sun come back?”

“He wanted to stay longer,” Jamilah Sultan Newman said. For Jasim, who is autistic, the site is a sensory paradise and a haven.

At age 2, her son was diagnosed with autism, Sultan Newman said:

“He did a lot of repeating of things, like phrases from shows he watched on TV. And when asked a question, he’d repeat it back to you.”

Their lives changed that day.

“Like a lot of parents, I was overwhelmed, looking for resources,” she said. One was the Howard County Autism Society, a leader in supporting inclusive playgrounds like the one at Blandair Park.

Fully fenced and double-gated, the free-range playground, called “Laura’s Place,” boasts unique swings, slides and rides on which one can go sideways or spin like a top.

“Neurodiverse [autistic] children need different types of movement so they don’t have to just go back and forth,” Sultan Newman said.

To that end, there’s a rocking pirate ship, two nonverbal communication boards and a free notes musical area where youngsters can bang the heck out of faux drums and xylophones. A swaying AeroGlider is wheelchair-accessible and an always-popular ride.

“We go several times a week, in summer,” said Sultan Newman, who lives a few miles away. When told their destination, Jasim shouts “Yea!” and tells his mom on what toys he wants to play. He knows their names by heart.

“What’s great is that he can run around there without my having to put a safety bracelet on him.”

Clearly, “Laura’s Place” has surpassed their expectations.

“If Jasim could play there every day, he’d be ecstatic,” said his mother, 39, an attorney who works for the federal government. “Compared to the ‘tot lots’ here in Columbia, ‘Laura’s Place’ is like Disneyland. It’s the playground at the top of my list, the equivalent of him going to an amusement park.

“I’ve never been to a playground that’s as much fun as this one, even as an adult. In fact, I’ve seen adults who are neurodiverse playing on the bigger structures there. I don’t know if [the county] meant to do that, but it’s certainly a benefit.”

Jasim also tackles the rock-climbing wall, albeit a mini-version for small children, with his mom’s blessing.

“He is very high-energy, and kids who are hyperactive sometimes need to tire themselves,” she said. “Having to pull his body weight up a wall exerts something extra. When he comes home from the playground, eats dinner, takes a bath and gets ready for bed, Jasim is exhausted.

“When he has had a heavy workout, he’s less likely to wake up at night; in the morning, he is well rested and has a better day at school. It’s a huge difference from when the weather is bad, and he can’t go out and is frustrated with all of that pent-up energy.”

And if the skies should open up while he’s playing at “Laura’s Place?”

“Mommy,” he’ll say, “make the rain go away.”

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