I am an educator, a seasoned advocate for inclusive play and a parent of two children, one of whom has a profound disability. I co-founded a non-profit playspace for children with and without disabilities. I was its only CEO for 13 years, before it became a victim of the recession. In the last year, before it closed, we affected the play experience of 1,000,000 children. I now run my own consulting business, Let Kids Play, where I work with communities who want to improve their existing playspaces or build new playspaces. I review educational toys, speak about my journey and the importance of play, and edit a one-stop website on how to build and find an accessible playground. You can find me at www.letkidsplay.com; www.accessibleplaygrounds.net, and http://letkidsplay.blogspot.com.
Life is a journey. It only takes a moment, a chance encounter, for your life to take the path you hadn't planned on taking. Although it can be scary, I encourage you to embrace each new path, seeing it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. You never know where that path may lead, whom you meet along the way or what opportunities may await you. Taking these chances is not easy, but they lead to the most exciting and enriching times of your life.
When you are pregnant you start to weave dreams. Your dreams take you through a lifetime of wonderful experiences: going to the zoo, playing Little League, having a Bar Mitzvah… all the way to marriage and grandchildren. After all, when you are pregnant for nine 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. Life could become a journey of denial, grief and acceptance and back again through that cycle many, many times.
But, life may be a journey with 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." Thanks to the many parents who had already been on this journey, I didn't need to fight for schooling or curb cuts. Therefore, I chose to make the world of play more open and welcoming for all children, for it is through play that our children learn and grow.
It is only through crises that I have moved my career from one level to the next. So embrace the crisis. Overcoming adversity is as easy and as difficult as putting one foot in front of the other. You just keep moving. Sometimes the goal is to get through a day, while other times the goal is to get through a moment. But you need to keep moving. You need to keep your eyes open for the opportunities that will lead through the crisis. Rely on the support of others to help you through a tough time. Whether you seek out a mentor, your spouse, a professional therapist, friends, just remember you don’t need to do it yourself. In addition to support from others, you do need to listen to your inner voice. Deep inside you, you know what yur next move should be. Listen to that voice even if others question you. Trust in yourself.
In 2000, just a few years after I had helped to create the Center for Creative Play, an indoor inclusive-play environment in Pittsburgh, we lost our lease. Everyone around me, the board, my friends, family, saw this as an end of an era. I saw it as a new beginning. We had 90 days to find a new location and move. We had no extra money and no credit. I was told it was an impossible task. In fact, we hired a consultant to do a feasibility study and the study came back with the recommendation to close.
However, I refused to believe that study. I knew that Pittsburgh needed the Center for Creative Play. I knew that my family needed it and maybe most importantly I needed it. So I couldn’t let it close. I found a building to purchase. I needed a three-way partnership between the local foundations, governments, and banks to make the deal work. So I just kept telling people that I had everyone on board, until I really did have everyone on board. I secured a Community Block Grant, a significant donation from a few large foundations and a loan from a bank. (I was turned down by five banks, before getting a yes.) We purchased the building, closed for a year, raised an additional $2,000,000 to renovate the building and reopened. In the first year in our new location we saw 40,000 visitors, which represented a 400% increase from our previous location.
Be passionate. Be passionate. Be passionate. Believe in yourself and what you are selling. Never give up. There is always a way around an obstacle. Be creative and always trust your intuition.
Find a time in your day to be quiet. Go for a walk without any music, take a longer shower, stay in bed for an extra 15 minutes (if you have that luxury), or sit in a chair with your eyes closed. During these times, do not have an agenda or a certain problem you need to solve. Just let your mind wander. These are the times when I come up with the best and most creative ideas. These quiet moments are gifts that you give to yourself.
What I am going to say here may upset the "disability community." However, I have learned the hard way that you can't always do what the group wants you to do. I love my son, but he is not the greatest joy of my life. His smile is brilliant and he gives unconditional love to everyone around him. He has taught me much, led me in directions I never thought I would go, but he has also broken my heart more times than I can say. He is now sixteen years old with the cognitive abilities of a 6-month-old.
On the other hand, my typically developing daughter is the greatest joy of my life. She has given me back some of the dream. She is beautiful both inside and out. She loves her brother with all of her heart and being. She is funny, smart and caring. She gives me all of the hugs and kisses I need, making up for all of the ones I don’t get from my son. She is totally unique. She is strong and her own person. She is also 12 years old—so she does drive me crazy as only a pre-teen can do. But watching a human being grow and develop and move towards becoming an adult with my love and guidance, is an unbelievable experience-—one that I treasure even more as I've had to wait for it. She truly is the greatest joy of my life.
You need to understand that life is a rollercoaster, especially if you are raising a child with a disability. Sometimes you are on the kiddie coaster and sometimes you are on the scariest coaster in the country. You never know which one you are on and you don't know when it will switch. You are on that rollercoaster blind, never knowing when it will slow down or when the huge drop is coming. On the other hand, you also don’t know when a huge high is coming. You are on the roller coaster by yourself—because everyone's rollercoaster is different. So when there are times that you are lucky enough to find someone whose coaster seems to be going along the same route as yours grab hold and share the support for as long as you can.
Yet, don't let the rollercoaster stop you from living your life. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Live in the moment and never look too far ahead, the unknown can be paralyzing. Use your personal experiences to enhance your professional experiences. For example, what you learn waiting for hours in a doctor's office, can change your whole outlook on customer service.
Laugh even when others think your humor is a little morbid. Hold on tight during the bumpy times and rejoice at the smallest of accomplishments and take every opportunity to learn something new.
I would find a safe and loving place for my son to live and I would travel the world finding exciting play environments, learning about other people’s successes, and sharing my own experiences.
In 1995 Mara Kaplan and five other parents, who are raising children with disabilities, recognized the importance of play as a learning experience for their children. Determined to create a place where children of all abilities would feel comfortable playing together, they established the Center for Creative Play.
Mara has experience in taking start-up organizations to ones with national recognition, designing playgrounds and indoor playspaces using universal design principles. She also writes grants, trains staff, operates playspaces, and designs and implements programs.
She has an elementary education degree with a minor in gifted education from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. She received her MBA, with a concentration in nonprofit management, from Boston University.