An old set of low monkey bars sits in the middle of one of the playgrounds behind Folsom Elementary School in Prosper, where children all around it run around, climb and slide on the taller play sets.
Five-year-old Nathan Gilbert, smiling as always, grabs on tightly to the bars that make up the side of the monkey bars and tries to stand up to take a few steps while watching his friends from a distance go up and down the glossy slides and ladders. His wheelchair waits for him only a few steps away.
Out of all of the play sets on both of the playgrounds behind the elementary school, this is the only one Nathan can truly utilize and play with during recess, but that’s not without the help of an adult to wheel him through the wood chips that cover the grounds on both playgrounds.
Nathan was diagnosed with spina bifida when his mom, Kristen Gilbert, was only 18 weeks pregnant with him, her fifth and youngest child. Spina bifida is a birth defect that prevents children’s spinal cord to develop properly. Their doctors suggested to proceed with a fetal surgery to correct it and leave him inside the womb to keep developing.
“We were told he was worst case scenario,” Kristen Gilbert said. “We were told to terminate. We decided not to, and we decided to move forward with the surgery.”
Nathan has since undergone 10 surgeries, all of them during his first three years of life. Seeing that he had to be in a wheelchair or be carried to be mobile, his family adjusted to his needs.
“We avoided parks for a really long time just so that he wouldn’t feel left out, and we have three other boys who would like to go to the park,” Gilbert said. “But we just did other stuff, we just did different activities so that he wouldn’t feel like that.”
What Nathan wants the most, though, is something any other 5-year-old would want: to be able to access and play on his school’s playground during recess.
His elementary school has two playgrounds, one for Kindergarten through second grade, and one for the kids older than that. They are both currently covered in wood chips, which are typically used by parks and schools to cushion falls and provide more safety than hard ground.
The disadvantage of the wood chips all over the ground is that Nathan is not able to access the play sets by himself due to his wheels getting stuck on the wood chips and leaving him stranded. He’s left playing in limited parts of the playground and watching his friends run around and play catch.
“According to guidelines (the playgrounds) are ADA compliant, but compliant doesn’t mean accessible,” Gilbert said. “(Having) the ability to go where his friends go, I think that’d be huge. For him to be able to follow them wherever they decide to run.”
When he started preschool, his mom talked to the school district ahead of time and they made arrangements so he would be able to play with his friends.
“His preschool was all mulch, and they turfed the whole playground so he could crawl around or use his wheelchair and be with his friends.”
But when time came for him to start kindergarten and switch schools within the district, it became a bigger challenge budget-wise for the school district to adjust the playground to Nathan’s needs.
“I knew ahead of time that it was gonna be a problem, and I waited for the school district to do something,” Gilbert said. “And they did — they turfed one little pathway, but for them to say ‘That’s all we’re doing’ (because of the lack of funds) that was probably when I was like, ‘That’s not enough.”
The Gilberts decided to take matters into their own hands and with the collaboration of the school, start a fundraiser to be able to modify and update any outdated or inaccessible playgrounds for children with disabilities.
“People don’t think about it, because when your kids can run and play and don’t have a problem, you don’t think about it,” Gilbert said. “The more things that he doesn’t have to ask help for is going to make him feel more independent. If he can just go and play … then he can feel like he’s just like everybody else.”
She said that this project, which they call the Prosper Plays project, is about thinking outside the guidelines and making it better simply because guidelines don’t consider all the factors that make it difficult for a child with disabilities to do what he or she is supposed to be doing at that age.
“I feel like he’s going to face a lot of challenges in his life,” Gilbert said. “Playing should not be a challenge. Having fun on the playground shouldn’t be a challenge. It should just be something that is given.”
According to the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists’ position on young children and recess, “children who are less restricted in their access to the outdoors gain competence in moving through the larger world. Developmentally, they should … lay the foundation for the courage that will enable them eventually to lead their own lives.”
The Gilberts own a T-shirt printing company, the Prosper Print Shop. They will be printing and selling the project T-shirts on their website starting this week, as well as selling Kindness Grams around the school for the students to participate in the fundraiser, which has already raised more than $1,000. All of the proceeds will go toward modifying the playgrounds at Nathan’s school to make them accessible for all children.
Laine Jones, the principal of Folsom Elementary School, said it was easy to say yes to the fundraising idea because it benefits all current and future students at the school and a design plan from playground companies is already in the works
“I’m thrilled that our students and parents have embraced Project Prosper Plays,” Jones said. “T-shirts are selling like crazy and the next event is a Donor Brick campaign. I am hopeful the fundraising events will begin the process of upgrading our playground with more accessibility for Nathan, his friends and all students.”
One of Prosper ISD’s Educational Diagnosticians and a friend of the Gilbert family, Christie Hendrix, said she doesn’t think Nathan will be the only one who is going to eventually need the playground.
“All of our playgrounds need to be wheelchair accessible and meet the needs of diverse students,” Hendrix said. “And the importance of recess is huge — there is so much research out there that says that you gain cognitive ability and social skills through play during recess.”
She said Nathan’s attitude after everything he’s been through is very inspiring.
“He’s always happy, always smiling,” Hendrix said. “It hurts my heart that he has not been able to access the playground with his peers. I feel like if anyone met Nathan, they would be throwing money at this project. … That playground would be built in no time.”