How children with special needs are locked out by open playgrounds

Lottie Twyford 9 September 2021 18
Children's playground

Parents of children with special needs say open playgrounds in the ACT just aren’t safe enough. Photo: Region Media.

For parents or carers of neurodiverse children, a visit to the local playground can be fraught with worry and fear.

That’s because few of the ACT’s playgrounds are fenced, meaning they are simply not safe for autistic children, many of who will run away if they feel unsettled or panicked, or else towards water if it is nearby.

Canberra Liberals MLA Giulia Jones personally understands this situation. Two of her six children are autistic, meaning a trip to an unfenced park simply wasn’t an option when they were younger.

She’s so passionate about the need for fencing around playgrounds that it was the first motion she ever raised upon being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly nine years ago.

Ms Jones can still remember the debate that ensued and the example she raised of how difficult it was to be a breastfeeding mother and take an older sibling with autism to a playground.

She also remembers the smarting feeling of a comment from then ACT Minister for Territory and Municipal Services Shane Rattenbury who told her quite clearly that “we’re not your babysitter”.

Ms Jones also experienced the feeling of her two-year-old son, Leo, escaping the family home on the first day they moved in and making his way straight to a bus stop on Hindmarsh Drive where he was subsequently found by their new neighbour.

“We’d literally just got there and I hadn’t had a single day to put chains on the fence,” she said.

At the time, Leo hadn’t been diagnosed with autism and Ms Jones said she felt like a total failure because it seemed like ‘normal parenting’ just wasn’t working.

“Some kids’ differences might not be noticeable to the outside world, but they have atypical logic so when they are young it can be quite dangerous,” she explained.

Ms Jones’s kids are now too old to visit playgrounds, but she’ll soon be sponsoring another question on notice in the ACT Legislative Assembly on the matter.

She’s concerned that little change has been made. While there are a few fenced playgrounds now, she thinks there needs to be at least one in every region that is fenced to a common standard.

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For Ms Jones, fencing is a simple fix and allows parents to relax without needing to watch children who may run off like hawks all the time.

“It’s just so uncaring to assume, ‘Oh well, you had your children you need to look after them,'” she said.

After all, there are many situations in which someone who doesn’t know the child well may be looking after them, such as a new carer, foster parents, uncle or aunt.

Retired early childhood teacher Matthew Armstrong has been closely following this issue in recent years. He began gathering stories from parents and carers in 2017 and made several submissions to the ACT Government.

He worked at the uniquely set up Turner School, which has a program for children with a disability integrated into a mainstream schooling arrangement.

Often, he’d note the almost ‘Houdini-like’ abilities of autistic children, who can often scale fences and drainpipes with remarkable speed.

“You have to really see it to believe it,” said Mr Armstrong.

He’s heard stories of parents who have their entire homes locked up because the child escapes so much, and one mum who woke up to find her child – who loves cars – had got out in the middle of the night and was riding his tricycle in the street over a roundabout.

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In 2020, Mr Armstrong began travelling around to local playgrounds to document the state they were in and found that only one met pool-safe fencing standards.

He also noticed that dog parks were much better fenced than those for children.

“There are more and better-built dog parks than there are truly safe, fully fenced playgrounds for children,” said Mr Armstrong.

Neither he nor Ms Jones are pushing for every playground in Canberra to be fenced, either.

However, the pair does want them to adhere to at least a standardised code, similar to that of pool standards.

Under the code, fences should be at least 1.2 metres high, as well as adhering to other specifications such as angled horizontals to match the slope of the ground so there are no gaps through which children can escape.

Under the proposed code, objects also cannot be placed within a 1.2-metre arc of the fence so children cannot climb out.

What's Your Opinion?

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18 Responses to How children with special needs are locked out by open playgrounds
Karl Edmondson Karl Edmondson 3:04 pm 13 Sep 21

Boundless and Arboretum are fully fenced.

Paula Simcocks Paula Simcocks 4:33 pm 12 Sep 21

I have a special needs kid, think a fence would be more likely to lock them

Out. Without fence I could tentatively urge them to go but closer to other children but to go through a gate that’s a big step.

Melanie Smith Melanie Smith 3:13 pm 12 Sep 21

I agree. There is a huge amount of stress on parents of multiple kids when you go to a playground that’s not fenced. All it takes is one child to fall and whilst you deal with that the toddler wanders off. At least in a fenced park you know that they can’t get far. I will add that Brisbane has loads of fenced playgrounds particularly ones that are close to roads. It just makes your area more family friendly - surely that’s a good thing?

Maddie Ten Maddie Ten 3:04 pm 12 Sep 21

Multiple exits. Always.

Oiledpengu Oiledpengu 2:09 pm 12 Sep 21

But wouldn’t you be closely watching/supervising them?

    mitch kingston mitch kingston 5:29 pm 12 Sep 21

    Do you have a special needs child??
    I can bet not if you do how many other children do you have? It isn’t as simple as watching you autistic child run to Lake away from the park as you watch your other 4 children play to make shore they don’t hurt themselves . It is not as easy as just watching them mate

Avril Pounds Avril Pounds 1:52 pm 12 Sep 21

Most schools are now fenced. I don't see why they can't fence a few playgrounds.

    Lynne Meredith Lynne Meredith 2:16 pm 12 Sep 21

    Avril Pounds so glad to note that my local school is open to the public! Often see kids playing on the play equipment, oval and basketball courts after school and on weekends.

    No school should have fences, nor should the local parks!

    Jenni Zimoch Jenni Zimoch 2:26 pm 12 Sep 21

    Lynne Meredith fences keep kids in and unwanted people out

高島智矢 高島智矢 1:40 pm 12 Sep 21

How much would a fencing cost anyway, just build them. What is there to debate?

Lyn Christie Lyn Christie 1:20 pm 12 Sep 21

Maybe check this resource, great for finding playgrounds, has various status listed.

    Astoria Bright Astoria Bright 1:45 pm 12 Sep 21

    Thanks Lyn Christie For tagging our Instagram account.

    We are aware of the lack of safe and secure fully fenced for playgrounds in the ACT , with only 18 currently fenced of over 500. We are excited 3 more exisiting playgrounds will be receiving fully fenced boundaries by the end of the year* Covid permitting

    We do admire the lengths MLA Giulia Jones and Mr Armstrong are going through to make play accessible for more children, parents and careers.

Robyn Holder Robyn Holder 12:44 pm 12 Sep 21

I have to agree with Rattenbury. A lot of young children will run off not just autistic kids. Are you going to start asking for footpaths near roads to be fenced off too in case they run on a road? Closed doors with high handles at supermarkets. Fenced off carparks?

    Rebecca Smith Rebecca Smith 1:25 pm 12 Sep 21

    Robyn Holder I don't agree that you are comparing like with like. A playground is designed for kids to run around in - and for our active (and very fast) 3 year old, we do mostly try to pick playgrounds that are fully fenced. In those other situations that you are talking about, I either have him in a stroller or trolley or hold his hand the whole time.

    Lynne Meredith Lynne Meredith 2:24 pm 12 Sep 21

    Robyn Holder absolutely agree 100%

    When did we become such a risk adverse society?

    Parents who think the park is unsafe should avoid going to that place and find alternate activities or solutions.

    My son is autistic and I have never expected the world to change for him rather he has learnt to joint the rest of the world best way he knows how.

    Crystal Lancaster Crystal Lancaster 3:24 pm 12 Sep 21

    Lynne Meredith i feel like as state we are failing all people with disabilities whe have no real wheel chair supported parks children with walking aid we also need playgrounds with fences for autistic children children with anxiety and many more reasons

    You say you don't expect the world to change for him how about we just grow up as adults and work out the normal is unrealistic for many reasons

    Image being that parent who can't take all their children to the one park because its not equipped for a child's needs this would also expose children to multiple range of different issues

    Lynne Meredith Lynne Meredith 4:05 pm 12 Sep 21

    Crystal Lancaster there is no way a park can be built to accommodate every child’s needs!

    Canberra has done pretty well by building Boundless but I’m sure someone will whine about it, or ask why can’t we have one in our area.

    But to follow tour line of thinking, put fences up for the kids that are runners but what will you do for the kids that have panic attacks and have sensory issues around being fenced in or enclosed?

    Laura Gilbert Laura Gilbert 5:11 pm 15 Sep 21

    This comment nearly makes me want to cry. I have two children ages 2 and 5. First one is autistic and is limited verbally and will just run away without warning he will run into water (I have had to pull him out of a lake twice and a swimming pool 5 times) and yes I watch him closely as I know what he’s like. I will not go out in public with both my kids unless I have my husband or a helper with me. My mother in law has said she can’t help as much any more as she struggles to control him or fetch him too. It’s not parenting style (I used to think this was the case before my son) you have therapists and a team behind you working with him. Even therapists have managed to not handle him in a park and have him get away. I was chasing him as he was heading towards a lake that was about 500 meters away. I had to yell out to a stranger to grab him as he was just a few steps from the water. Lucky they were happy to help.

    We want to be able to go to a park and live our lives just a little too. We have to be so careful on what we do and where we go and we miss out on so many life experiences because of it all. To be able to play in a park with some of the stress removed it is a huge thing for us.

    Even with fences, We still have stresses. My son will take peoples food if I have not fed him well before hand. As he goes through obsessions it can be awkward when he’s trying to take shoes off other kids or hair clips off them. He will also run in front of swings etc as he has no sense of what’s happening around him. So to take away the biggest stress of running away and getting lost, drowning, kidnapping, hit buy a car, falling off something, doing or touching something he shouldn’t, eating something he shouldn’t.

    Walking along a path is different. I am still tackling him as he runs away etc but we avoid these places. My kids have rarely seen inside a shopping complex. My husband and I have to take turns to go to the mall as it’s just too stressful or we have to choose who gets to do an outing because we can’t take the kids (even if it’s a child ‘friendly’ event).

    The cost of the fences going in a park vs the sanity of families like mine is worth it.

    Parks and select peoples houses are the only place my children are allowed to go.

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