05.11.24

At first glance, Zachary’s Playground in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri, looks like a typical (albeit very inviting) playground. There are bright colors, big slides, swing sets, and little nooks fit for games of hide-and-seek. But something special sets this one apart: It’s fully inclusive for children of all abilities. 

“Play is a universal language and the first one that children learn,” Natalie Mackay told Nice News.

Mackay is the force behind Zachary’s Playground and the founder of Unlimited Play, a nonprofit dedicated to building accessible playgrounds for all children to play together — or as the organization’s tagline puts it, places “where limitations are forgotten and differences are celebrated.”

The idea came to Mackay through her late son Zachary, who had a rare genetic central nervous system disease called Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease and used a wheelchair or assistive walking device for mobility. Zach loved to play as much as any other kid, but unfortunately, Mackay found that taking him to the playground only emphasized his limitations. Even worse, the barriers he faced there prevented him from having fun with other children. 

Courtesy of Natalie Mackay

After visiting an accessible playground on the East Coast and dreaming of having something similar that Zach could visit locally, she decided to make it happen herself. In 2003, Mackay, who has a background in recreation management, created one in their hometown, naming it after her then-3-year-old son, the inspiration for it all. 

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Giving Zach the opportunity to play was a big part of Mackay’s goal. (His favorite activities were “swinging and climbing to the top of the castle,” she said.) But she also wanted to create a place that encouraged friendships, freedom, and community. 

Courtesy of Unlimited Play

“Inclusive playgrounds are crucial because they provide a space where children can communicate through play,” Mackay said. “They ensure that families like mine feel welcome, valued, and included.”

Since building Zachary’s Playground, Mackay’s nonprofit has helped launch over 100 inclusive playgrounds across the country — everywhere from California to Rhode Island. Some of the playgrounds feature treehouses; others revolve around themes of space, farm life, and the jungle. But all of the playgrounds are made to “fully support inclusive play” and built with insight from play experts, therapists, and parents of children with disabilities and critical illnesses, all of which goes a long way for both kids and their families. 

Courtesy of Unlimited Play

“I’ve witnessed transformative moments, such as a father tearfully pushing his 21-year-old daughter on a swing for the first time,” Mackay said, adding: “Parents, too, find a welcoming space. One of my earliest speaking engagements introduced me to a mother with multiple sclerosis who was previously unable to safely take her young children to a playground.”

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Mackay explained that Unlimited Play addresses the shortcomings of traditional, ADA-compliant playgrounds through features like unitary surfacing (think: rubber instead of sand), ramps to high points, sensory panels to engage various senses, and high-contrast colors for safety cues. 

At its core, each inclusive playground is made to foster “a community where everyone feels they belong,” Mackay said. 

Hannah’s Playground in Illinois, for example, boasts swings that offer extra support, spongy surface, ramps, and special Braille panels. Stop by Frontier Park Playground in Arizona, and you’ll find an area called the Quiet Grove for kids to have a moment of calm if they feel overwhelmed. 

While Nice News visited Brandon’s Village in Calabasas, California, we saw a poster detailing construction plans to add a  spinner, tower with ramps, and music panels — all to make the park even more accessible.  

More than 20 years after Zachary’s Playground opened, Mackay continues to help build magical and accessible worlds for kiddos, paying tribute to her son, who passed away in 2021, one slide, sandbox, and swing set at a time. 

Courtesy of Unlimited Play

“Following Zach’s passing, the question of continuing this mission weighed heavily on me,” Mackay shared. “Today, I can emphatically say ‘yes’ — his legacy lives on through each new playground, spreading joy and inclusion to all children.”

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Visit the website to donate to playgrounds in progress or inquire about building a playground in your community.

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