PERRYSBURG — When 4-year-old Grant Wichman, who uses a walker, goes to an area park, there isn’t much for him to play on independently.
That’s about to change thanks to Wood County Plays, an organization that has raised $800,000 to build an inclusive play area at Rotary Community Park in Perrysburg.
Grant’s father, Ryan Wichman, would like to see the Wood County Park District install inclusive parks in the future. Wichman was invited to talk at the Feb. 19 park district special meeting, held at W.W. Knight Preserve.
“We have three or four parks that have playgrounds in them, and (accessibility is) one of the things that’s on my heart,” said park board Chairwoman Sandy Wiechman. “I brought in Ryan to talk to us about the different types of equipment that we could put into our parks. It doesn’t have to be a ton of money.”
The county district has 19 parks.
Wichman, a WTOL-TV meteorologist, is one of the leaders of Wood County Plays, which organized 18 months ago. When Grant was 2, the family tried to go to the playground at Woodlands Park, which is a city park. Grant has low muscle tone, among other issues, and uses a walker.
“We found out very, very quickly that traditional playground spaces (were difficult) for wheelchairs and walkers. You get stuck, can’t play independently and that makes him very, very frustrated,” Wichman said.
There is an inclusive park in Findlay, but the family started the effort to build one close to their home.
“Why can’t we have one in Perrysburg? I’m very happy to say that this summer we’re going to be building the first inclusive playground here in Perrysburg over at Rotary Community Park,” he said.
Construction will start this summer.
Wichman would like to see inclusive parks all over the county.
“We visited Otsego Park, we’ve been down to Bradner, and those are great playgrounds, but they’re not the most accessible,” he said. “I would love to see playground spaces that are open to all children of all abilities in other places, including the Wood County Park District.”
Building an inclusive park is not as simple as adding a special swing. There needs to be equipment that everyone can use and the ground covering must be rubberized, not the traditional mulch, Wichman said.
If there’s just an accessible swing at a park, for example, the child must be carried over to it, in front of peers.
“From an empathy standpoint, feel how that child must feel in that moment, when they must be taken and put in there,” Wichman said. “We want to eliminate some of those moments when they feel less than.”
That poured rubber surface, instead of mulch, can be a large expense, $15,000-$20,000, he said.
“What we’re striving for with our playground and future play spaces is inclusion, where every piece of equipment — in some way, shape or form — invites every child with every ability to play side by side,” he said.
Wood County is seeing a huge influx of children with disabilities, mainly because of outstanding services from the Wood County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Wichman said.
“Over the last decade there’s been a 59% increase in special-needs children that have moved to Wood County. If you look at the state as a whole, it’s 9%,” he said. “Wood County has just exploded with special-needs families.”
He said that 58% of the individuals served by the developmental disabilities board are under the age of 22. Also, 30% are diagnosed with autism and 35% live in Perrysburg.
Wood County Plays can be a partner with the park district, Wichman said.
“It’s my hope that in the next couple years, we can just start in, say, Bradner, and put in something for sensory play there,” Wiechman said. “We’ve got great parks, but how can we reach out to others?”
Board member Bill Cameron said that the rubberized surface could also make parks more accessible to the older population who uses wheelchairs and walkers.
Director Neil Munger said that the park district’s annual grant program could be expanded from its $100,000 pool and be specific for an inclusive playground.
“I just hope this starts a conversation,” Wichman said.