Kayin “Kai” Dakhari, 9, loves his weekly trips to Jake's Place playground in Cherry Hill. Here, Kai can play on the equipment like everyone else, even though he is in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy.
“It feels great when all kids can be equal,” says Kai, a third-grader at Evans Elementary School in Marlton. “And going to the park gives me brain breaks to help me be more focused once I get back to my schoolwork.”
Visiting a playground gives children a chance to make friends and learn about each other's differences in a positive and fun atmosphere. When visiting Jake's Place, there is a greater acceptance of differences and different abilities because everything is integrated, says J. Oni Dakhari, Kai's mother.
“Kids can meet up with friends at a playground, meet new peers and enjoy important socialization experiences,” she says. “I love Jake's Place because not only are there so many kids there but on many occasions several kids actively include Kai in the games they are playing. It is such a great and rare occasion to be able to sit back and just watch Kai playing with his peers without needing adult assistance.”
Too often, says Dakhari, handicapped-accessible play places are set apart or different from the mainstream ones. At Jake's Place, Kai can increase his self-confidence and experience normalcy.
“We want Jake's Place to break down barriers so all children can play together,” says Lynn Cummings, a co-founder of the playground. “The best part about this playground is that children who are disabled or have serious conditions can still play with everyone else. We give all children an opportunity to mix and mingle.”
Jake's Place was built in memory of Cummings' grandson, Jake, who died at age 2 from a rare cardiac medical condition. His family wanted to build a playground for all children to enjoy, regardless of their physical limitations, says Cummings.
All of the equipment at the park has ramps, so children, parents or grandparents in wheelchairs can still make it to the top. The slides have enough room at the top to transfer children from a wheelchair and let them enjoy a ride down. There is apparatus that will help children develop motor skills, and lower monkey bars and rock-climbing walls that most kids can climb using upper body strength, she says. And a favorite at the park is the Sway-Fun, she says.
“The Sway-Fun looks like a great, big boat but works like a see-saw,” says Cummings. “It is built so two to three kids in a wheelchair can use it. Most children in a wheelchair have to watch other kids play, but here they can play, too.”
The founders of Jake's Place are fundraising for another playground to open in Delran. Cummings says she is hoping the playground will be ready within the next two years.
“The playground is always packed,” she says. “We think there is a need for every county to have one.”
More than 215,000 families visit Smith Memorial Playground in Philadelphia each year to play in the 16,000-square-foot playhouse, says Zoe Hillengas, Communications Manager for the playground. The 39 foot Ann Newman giant wooden slide built in 1905 is another favorite attraction. The slide is waxed wood, and kids ride down in burlap sacks.
One of the best parts about playing at Smith Memorial Playground is that many children will get an opportunity to make new friends, says Hillengas.
“Since Smith's audience is racially, economically and culturally diverse, children who play together come from a wide range of backgrounds which enrich the experience for all,” she says.
Smith also hosts special events for their playground guests, such as the Kidchella Music Festival. This festival will take place in June, July and August and features live, family-friendly music groups, food trucks and more.
“Play is fun, but not just fun,” says Hillengas. “Time spent in play is critical to children's social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Many of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life are initially developed through early childhood play.”
Children can make friends and learn life skills while having fun at one of these 25 playgrounds in South Jersey, the shore and Philadelphia:
Jake's Place Playground– Jake's Place Playground is accessible for the entire family, as well as children with disabilities. Monkey bars are shorter here, so younger children and those in a wheelchair can play. There are tall, spacious slides with ramps leading up to them, making it easier for those in strollers, wheelchairs and even parents and grandparents to play, too. There is lots of play equipment, including some that can teach children Braille; covered picnic tables and restrooms. Jake's Place is at Borton's Mill Road, Cherry Hill. For more information, visit www.buildjakesplace.org.