UK’s first inclusive playground opens in Barnet

Deborah Gundle and Nathalie Esfandi wanted to create a place where everybody could play


UK's first inclusive playground is accessible to all ages (Photo: Kisharon Langdon)

When Deborah Gundle used to take her three children to the playground, her son Zach would sit at the side and watch his siblings having fun because he was in a wheelchair and unable to join in.

“I wanted to change that, not just for him, but for everyone who’s experiencing that,” says Gundle.

Years later, she joined fellow Jewish mother Nathalie Esfandi, and the pair have now launched the UK’s first inclusive and accessible playground, at Victoria Recreation Ground in East Barnet, in partnership with Barnet Council.

Esfandi was inspired by her work with the disability organisation Beit Issie Shapiro, which opened its first inclusive playground in Israel in 2005 and has since sparked another 60 across the country, and more globally.

“I always had a dream to replicate it here in the UK,” she says. While Esfandi’s children, now aged nine, 14 and 15, don’t have disabilities, she found it “strange” how those with disabilities would have to sit at the side. “It just wasn’t inclusive. It’s heart-breaking and so unfair and shouldn’t be happening.”

There are one million disabled children in the UK. But research from Scope has shown that almost half of all parents with disabled children say there are accessibility issues at their local playground, and more than one in 10 families living with someone with a disability say they are unable to enjoy the playground because their children are not able to play together.

Gundle and Esfandi were introduced after both contacted the charity Kisharon Langdon, which supports autistic people and people with learning disabilities.

Soon after meeting, the pair established Fair Play, a pioneering initiative to break down barriers, create a more inclusive society and redefine the standard for public spaces.

They would love to see the model of Fair Play Barnet rolled out around the UK, just as Beit Issie Shapiro’s was in Israel. “Because actually, all playgrounds can be accessible,” says Gundle. “What we’re trying to do is show the need for it and how to do it. Everybody’s got the right to play.”

She points out the adaptations they’ve made that are as simple as picnic tables having cutaways in the benches to allow wheelchair-users to sit with their families rather than apart from them.

Esfandi adds: “Local councils have an obligation to foster inclusive play, to benefit the community, not just people with disabilities. The traditional playground model is just old-fashioned now.”

While many playgrounds these days offer a bucket swing, Gundle says “there’s not much else” —  and sometimes you can’t even get a wheelchair into the area.

With the assistance of Angela Harding OBE, who pioneered provisions for children with hearing impairments and complex language needs, they sourced equipment for children with diverse physical abilities, including communication boards for those who are nonverbal. There are different swings to enable everyone to use them; the favourite is where two can sit together.

“People with special needs are often on their own, so to sit in the swing with another person is special,” says Gundle.

The beauty of the playground is that everyone can enjoy playing together, whatever their needs, and learn from each other in the process, they say.

The playground is also open to all ages since people with learning disabilities will still need access to physical play, fitness and socialisation when they grow up, they say.

Gundle points out people with learning disabilities are often isolated. “Children should grow up playing with [those] who’ve got different abilities, so that differences just don’t matter anymore.”

The pair invited a mix of children, both with and without disabilities, to the launch at which people supported by Kisharon Langdon served food to the guests.

Aviva Braunold, Learning and Development Lead at Kisharon Langdon, was “instrumental” in arranging that effort.

Rachel Ucko, Head of Jewish Living and Community at Kisharon Langdon said Dov Bloomberg, a beneficiary of the charity, said: “People were very nice to me, they took the food and said thank you. I liked offering the Mayor of Barnet.”

“At the beginning, some of the younger kids were a bit wary of kids in wheelchairs, just because they hadn’t seen them before,” Esfandi recalls. “But after about five minutes, they didn’t see the difference anymore. They were all playing together, and it was really beautiful to see. The more inclusive society is, the better.”

One little girl had never been on a swing before, because she was in a wheelchair. “She literally would not get off the swing,” says Esfandi. “She was so happy, and her mother had tears in her eyes. She hadn’t seen her that happy for so long.” Another parent told Esfandi that she’d had nowhere to take her disabled children on the weekends  — until now. “Siblings weren’t able to play together, but also parents weren’t able to go to playgrounds and stayed at home with their kid, so they missed out on that social interaction.”

Gundle, too, felt moved as she watched families at the launch. “Somebody said to me: ‘Yesterday, all playgrounds in Britain were perfectly fine. Today, this is the only one there is.’ It opened their eyes when they saw it.”

Laura Weller, chair of the UK Friends of Beit Issie Shapiro, said: “We hope, like our model in Israel, Fair Play will now be an example for all UK playgrounds, enabling people with and without disabilities to play together, and to raise awareness of inclusion.”​

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