East Orange to feature area's first 'inclusive' playground

2014-06-05 | The Orlando Sentinel

June 05--East Orange County is about to become home to Central Florida's first "inclusive" playground -- a place with Braille signs, a swing for kids in wheelchairs and a quiet area for children with autism who are easily overwhelmed by noise and crowds.

"It doesn't matter if you are a child who is blind, deaf, autistic, in a wheelchair or running around on two feet on a soccer field," said Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson at a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday. "This park is going to work for every single child and family in this community -- and it's the first of many."

Young Pine Community Park will sit on 28 acres of a pine-covered 66-acre tract bought by the county for a little more than $2 million. Expected to open in late spring or summer next year, the park includes a 20-acre lake for kayaking, canoeing and fishing. Plans also call for sports fields, picnic pavilions, a wetlands trail, a walking path, a dog park, a fishing pier and other amenities.

But its crown jewel will be the inclusive playground.

"This is not just for children with special needs. It's for all children," said Ilene Wilkins, president and CEO of UCP of Central Florida, a nonprofit that offers schools and programs specializing in inclusiveness. "Play is a child's first language, and I'm a firm believer that if kids at a young age can learn to play together and not see each other as different, they'll become better people and maybe make some lifelong friends."

For the growing number of children diagnosed with autism, the playground will have a quiet area, bordered by shrubbery that will offer a buffer against noise. There, kids will find "tactile" equipment and toys designed to be touched.

Marytza Sanz, founding president of the nonprofit Latino Leadership, said the playground would be a haven for children such as her 4-year-old autistic grandson, Santiago. The boy has high energy but doesn't speak. He struggles to communicate his needs.

"For so many families, it's very hard to take your kids to a park, because sometimes our children are not welcome," she said. "Sometimes people see us as if we are from another universe. But this will be a place where we can come and meet other parents, and our kids can develop those social skills they need so much."

Sanz said adults with developmental disabilities also would be welcome at the park.

"These children are going to grow up, but psychologically they may still stay children," she said. "This will be a place where they can feel comfortable, where they won't be looked at with suspicion."

Sanz, Wilkins and other advocates for children with special needs helped develop designs for the park, which already has been approved by the Orange County Commission. Construction is expected to start "any day," Thompson said, and the first phase -- including the playground and three soccer fields with lights -- should be open in about a year.

The smaller second phase should be completed in 2016. Development costs will run about $3.8 million.

Though the site is down the road from the Orange County Landfill, the dump is not visible from the park property.

If construction goes smoothly and the playground is well-received, Thompson said other parks could soon sport inclusive playgrounds. Money for such a feature is already in next year's budget for Downey Park, at the intersection of East State Road 50 and Dean Road.

The budget still needs to be approved by the commission, however.

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503

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