Mara Kaplan is the editor of accessibleplayground.net and the owner of Let Kids Play. This is her story of why she does what she does.
When you are pregnant you start to weave dreams. Your dreams take you through a lifetime of wonderful things: going to the zoo, playing Little League, having a Bar Mitzvah… all the way to marriage and grandchildren. After all, you are pregnant for 9 months; you have an awfully long time to dream.
However, it doesn’t take much to shatter a dream. A well-baby visit when the nurse measures your son’s head, and then measures it again and then again. She gets that look. She doesn’t say anything. The doctor comes in and repeats it all over again—and then asks to measure your head. It is over—the dream of a typical childhood is gone.
Now a journey starts. A journey complete with a new language: Microcephaly, EEG, seizures, failure to thrive. A journey of denial, grief and acceptance and back again through that cycle many, many times.
A journey and a choice: “I could choose to stay in my world of grief or I could move on with my life and maybe make the world a little better for other families that are sharing my journey.”
If you have ever met Mara Kaplan, you know the choice she made was the latter; she couldn’t stay still and do nothing. Yes, there was nothing she could do to fix her son, but maybe there was something she could do to fix something else. She looked around and found that there wasn’t a place she could take her son to play. Nowhere where he would be accepted no questions asked and where all types of children could play along with him while providing her with a chance to meet other mothers in a neutral setting.
As it didn’t exist, she made the decision to create it herself. With the help of four other mothers, the Center for Creative Play was created in 1997. They started with nothing except support from some non-profit organizations and after countless letters were able to attain grants to support further growth. When opening day came they had no lighting and just two rooms completed, but they built it, they did it, and they opened! Trickles of interest became over a 1,000 visitors by the first year, and soon five years passed, bringing them further growth, new programs, and calls from around the country for input on creating similar play centers.
But as you know it doesn’t take much to shatter a dream. The Center for Creative Play lost their lease. This didn’t stop Mara, and her tenacity once again triumphed when she raised enough money for a new center – and what a center it was. In their first year 45,000 people visited this inclusive environment. Soon the team was helping to create sites and children’s spaces in other communities around the country. It’s estimated they impacted over 1,000,000 children in 2007 alone.
But as you know it doesn’t take much to shatter a dream. The Center for Creative Play lived 8 years past its expected lifespan. The recession claimed another victim and it was time for another journey and another choice. Mara asked herself, how many dreams can you lose in a lifetime and still pick yourself back up and start again? She had given her life, her soul, and even the chance of having a third child to ensure that 1,000,000 children would have a better place to play. How could she do it again? How could she risk her heart one more time? Still, when she looked around she realized the task wasn’t complete. There were still children without places to play. There were certainly tons of children with disabilities that didn’t have places to play. The journey wasn’t complete.
The journey has led Mara to create Let Kids Play, a consulting agency dedicated to creating and improving play spaces for children of all abilities. Within the first year she had secured a lead gift of a million dollars to create similar play space and now has a long-term contract with a playground manufacturer to help them improve their product design.
Mara is not done. The journey continues. And Samuel? Samuel, who helped Mara start this journey, is now 17 years old. He is the happiest child you could ever meet. He gives out unconditional love to anyone who meets him. However, although his body is 17, his brain remains one of a 6-month-old. At each stage of his life there are new challenges, new lessons to learn, and a cycle of denial, grief and acceptance. So Mara’s family journey will continue as will her quest to bring inclusive play to every child who needs it.
If you would like information or help to create or improve an inclusive play space in your hometown, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.letkidsplay.com and http://letkidsplay.blogspot.com to read more about toys and play for children with and without disabilities. Stay right her on www.accessibleplayground.net to learn more about universal design, find a playground and your community, and see examples of communities who have built accessible playgrounds.