Fully accessible playground opens in London, organizers say it’s the first of its kind in Britain

Park is the brainchild of three Jewish women, who helped select the equipment so that it would be inclusive of children and adults with disabilities but still fun for all

LONDON — Whenever Annika O’Malley takes her daughter, Winifred, for walking practice in a park here, she says she “tries to avoid going near the playground.”

That’s because the 5-year-old, who has cerebral palsy and moves with walking aids, longs to use the swings and playground equipment — but they are not accessible. “It’s heartbreaking,” her mother told eJewishPhilanthropy, “she stands in front of a slide or a play structure, and I have to say, ‘You can’t, it’s impossible.’”

All that is about to change for Winifred and countless other children, as a fully accessible, inclusive playground — which its creators say is the “first of its kind” in Britain or anywhere else in Europe — opened in London’s Barnet borough on Tuesday, enabling disabled and able-bodied children to play together.

The Fair Play playground, designed in coordination with disabled residents, parents, carers and accessibility experts, is the brainchild of two Jewish women in London: Deborah Gundle and Nathalie Esfandi, with the assistance of a third Jewish woman, Angela Harding, who has been honored by King Charles III for her work with deaf children.

According to the British Office for National Statistics and the disability charity Scope, there are an estimated 1 million disabled children in the United Kingdom. Nearly half of all parents with disabled children report problems and accessibility issues in their local playground. More than 1 in 10 families, which may have one or more able-bodied children as well as a disabled child, say they can’t take the whole family to the park because the children aren’t able to play together. 

Gundle’s son, Zach, has severe learning disabilities. A social entrepreneur and learning disabilities specialist, she has thrown herself into offering solutions for the profoundly disabled, particularly in the Jewish community. She has produced three documentaries related to disability and published two accessible prayer books for people with learning disabilities.

“As a mother with a disabled son, I know how difficult it is for families like ours to be able to play together. A lot of hard work has gone into this project, and seeing the equipment being used by disabled and non-disabled children side by side is incredibly rewarding,” Gundle said. “I’d love for every playground to allow people of all ages and abilities to play in this way, and we hope Fair Play will act as the blueprint for new playgrounds up and down the country.”

She added: “Inclusive play will reduce stigma, through positive experiences in a society where social integration and physical fitness are important to all of us.” 

The Fair Play playground, which opened in London’s Barnet area on Feb. 13, 2024. (Courtesy)

Gundle told eJP that the London playground was “designed to be a model for other councils [city districts] and public landscape developers. We are trying to do what Beit Issie Shapiro successfully did in Israel: They built an inclusive playground which then led to the creation of many more inclusive playgrounds across other municipalities — 13 when I last looked.” (Ed. note: More than 60 accessible playgrounds have been built in Israel based on the organization’s model.)

O’Malley first became aware of accessible playgrounds two years ago when she took Winifred to a specialist clinic in Toronto. During the trip, she was, as usual, avoiding the public parks there. But by chance she came across “a tiny park with an all-ability swing,” and soon discovered that there was accessibility in every local park in the city. “These playgrounds were not just accessible, but inclusive — in other words Winifred could not just get on the equipment, but there was stuff for her to do to be included in the play. That’s just not the case in the U.K.”

O’Malley returned to Britain and found that her local government in south London, Lambeth, was revamping some of its playgrounds, and was hopeful that accessible equipment like Toronto’s would be installed. But she was to be disappointed: “Effectively, they used all the public money, and then excluded everyone who is disabled.”

She joined a parents’ special needs WhatsApp group and raised the issue. She found “a shocking number of parents who said, ‘We just don’t go to the park.’”

Gundle was also on this WhatsApp group, and soon she and Esfandi, who founded a business specializing in educational placemats for children, put their minds to designing a truly accessible and inclusive playground. Together with Harding, the women worked with a specialist company, Kompan, to source accessible equipment that spins, rocks and swings, along with sensory panels for touch, movement and sound — all selected with the disability community in mind.

In the Barnet playground, solid safety surfacing across the whole play area ensures it is wheelchair accessible, and the picnic area allows wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users to sit together. There are also communication boards for non-verbal people to use, along with a textured path surface to support visually impaired users to navigate, and only one entrance and exit to ensure users won’t leave without their carer’s knowledge. Gundle’s hope is that companies that now make playground equipment “will start to provide and design more accessible swings and rides, which can be used by everyone.

The £500,000 ($632,000) playground has been built through independent funding and donations, as well as £100,000 ($126,000) from the Barnet Council, the local area where the playground is sited.

The playground has been given a gold rating by PiPA PLAY – the U.K.’s only accreditation firm that assesses playgrounds in terms of disability access and quality. 

“As a mum to a child with a profound disability, I have firsthand experience of what it feels like to see your child excluded from parts of society,” Becky Maddern, PiPA PLAY director, said. “Play is fundamental to a child’s development and no child or family should be denied the opportunity to access and have fun at their local play park.”

Last week, before the formal opening of the playground, O’Malley drove there — from the other side of London — with Winifred, for the first time. “It was just a complete joy,” she said. “It took her half an hour to understand that she can go up the play structure, and it was the first time since she was a little baby that I could go down the slide with her. She was in absolute heaven. She went on a seesaw with Deborah’s son Zach — it was just pure joy.”

Winifred O’Malley plays on an accessible seesaw at the Fair Play playground in London with her mother, Annika, in an undated photograph.

Most impressive for O’Malley, whose older, able-bodied daughter has never been able to play in parks with her little sister before, is that the new playground is next to a regular one without accessible equipment, but on the day she visited, all the other families with able-bodied children brought them to the Fair Play swings and rides. 

“That is what got me really excited, that it isn’t the in-the-corner, shut-away area with one token piece of disabled equipment,” O’Malley said. “It’s not segregated, it’s truly for everyone. Winnie goes to a mainstream nursery and when they all meet in a park, we can’t go, because all the children would do everything and she would just stand there. But with this, for example, we could have birthday parties — and everyone could join in.”

Now, O’Malley says, she plans to re-lobby her own local council to show what can be done. “Believe me,” she said, “I intend to be a thorn in their side.”