• Tim Smith and Caroline Ghatt with their son Marcus, 11, at the launch of the inclusive playground they designed and created on Sydney's Northern Beaches. (SBS/Alyssa Braithwaite)Source: SBS/Alyssa Braithwaite
Dismayed that their wheelchair-bound son was unable to enjoy their local playgrounds, one Sydney family took action.
Alyssa Braithwaite

24 Aug 2017 - 2:19 PM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2017 - 2:28 PM

It all started with a Facebook rant.

When her local council sought community input on a new playground they were planning to build near her house on Sydney's Northern Beaches, Caroline Ghatt suggested it should be inclusive.

In response, someone wrote that they could put in a disability swing or something like that.

Ms Ghatt didn't hold back. As a mother-of-two, whose 11-year-old-son has significant intellectual and physical impairment, along with autism and some other challenges, this was something she felt passionately about.

"No bloody way, what are you thinking? It's not about disability, it's about inclusion. Don't you damn well know what inclusion is? etc etc," is how former Warringah Council Mayor Michael Regan remembers her Facebook reply.

But the council listened to what she and her husband Tim Smith had to say.

"Nothing in it was inclusive for children with special needs," Mr Smith tells SBS.

"We've got an 11-year-old boy who has got quite a few challenges. He could wheel up in his wheelchair to the edge of the playground, but he couldn't actually participate in anything within the playground. And that's pretty common with most playgrounds."

As they pointed out, swings, slides, and climbing equipment are pretty useless to a child in a wheelchair, who requires a more sensory-rich playground.

Ms Ghatt and Mr Smith founded Play For All Australia, first as a Facebook group and then also as a social innovation collective, and teamed up with the newly amalgamated Northern Beaches Council in a world-leading initiative to make their local playgrounds more inclusive.

The council set them the challenge to design and build five local council playground upgrades within six months - at a third of the cost of a normal playground upgrade - as part of the Belrose Inclusive Playspace Pilot.

They consulted with developmental experts, special needs occupational therapists, early educators, parents, designers, engineers, industrial designers, architects, and the Council, and came up with a network of local playgrounds based around the senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and movement. 

Today, on August 24, the first of those five playgrounds was launched at Lindrum Reserve in Belrose, not far from their family home.

"This is an extremely special day," says Ms Ghatt.

"It's been a big, exciting and at times very personal journey for us, and it's made me realise that what we value, what we fight for, believe in and strive for as a community says a lot about who we are."

"These neighbourhood play spaces are more than just a fun way to spend time. They [give] all children the chance to be kids first, not a label, a diagnosis or a disability." 

All locally designed and produced, the playground equipment is made from sustainable materials such as concrete, steel and wood, rather than plastic, and feature solar panels, self-watering plant boxes, and colourful designs and animal characters by local street artist Miguel Gonzales.

There are also different "surprise and delight" elements at the playgrounds, such glow in the dark elements and secret messages that only appear when it rains. 

It's been a real labour of love for Mr Smith and Ms Ghatt, who have juggled the work on this project with the significant care requirements of their son and two-year-old daughter.

"I have quite significant caring responsibilities for my son. He's a beautiful little angel, but he is one of the highest needs children in Sydney," Mr Smith says.

"But we're passionate about it because we understand the challenges that families go through when they've got a child with special needs. And as a society, when we include, we elevate all."

"We see this as an opportunity to really educate around inclusion, and every single park will have a board that talks about what is inclusion, what is the focus of this particular play space."

In the process, Play For All Australia has got Northern Beaches Council, Kurringah Council and Hornsby Council to change their policies around starting from a point of inclusion when it comes to any playground upgrade.

And they hope this is just the start of work in building inclusive playgrounds all around Australia.

"We would love to be able to help more communities and more councils with evolving their local play strategy," Mr Smith says.

"Our vision is to really make Australia a leader in this area around inclusive play, starting with the Northern Beaches."

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