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A special place to play: One boy’s life is inspiration for new playground

Kelsey Marshall with his son Owen.  - Photo courtesy of Stacy Marshall
Kelsey Marshall with his son Owen.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Stacy Marshall

Remember how it felt to sink both hands, palms down, fingers spread, into fresh wet sand on the beach? Or the exhilaration of rolling down a steep, grassy hill?

Remember how it felt to be so close to the sky, you’re sure that you can reach the clouds in just one swing at a time?

It’s easy. Close your eyes. Like a pendulum, first you’re being pulled backward and away from the ground, then suddenly you’re shooting forward and the ground is thrown back at you before it slides quickly out of your vision to make way for the sky: pale blue and puffy clouds, so close you can’t help but reach your hand out.

Meanwhile that feeling in the pit of your stomach pulls forth all the squeals and giggles we miss in adulthood.

This is play, in its most raw form.

It’s a rite of passage. It’s the “work” of childhood.

And yet, not all children have access to their neighborhood swing set. Not all children can play like this outside their own backyard.

For one Bainbridge Island family this was the case.

By the time he was 1 year old, Owen Marshall was diagnosed with quad-spastic cerebral palsy, cortical visual impairment and epilepsy. He had little voluntary control over his extremities and due to abnormalities in his brain, had reduced vision.

“We spent a lot of time at Seattle Children’s Hospital the first year of his life,” said Stacy Marshall, his mother.

“He had a very difficult time keeping food down because of all those disabilities, so he had a feeding tube placed when he was about 4 months,” she recalled.

For several months in that first year, tiny Owen was also given injections to try to control more than 120 seizures a day.

As he got older, play time for Owen didn’t mean playing in the mud or rolling down a hill at a neighborhood playground. Instead he spent time in his family’s garden underneath a big rainbow umbrella. He liked the bright colors because they were what he could see best, Marshall explained.

He listened to music and his little brother, Elliot, rolled him in his wheelchair around the house to dance.

He had a net swing at home, too. Like most kids, Owen loved it.

Owen passed away five months ago, at the age of 6.

With his disabilities, he never had the chance to play with his feet sunk low in the grass, or to kick up sand with other kids at the playground.

For other children like him on Bainbridge Island and across Kitsap County, though, that exclusion will soon change.

“A few days after Owen passed, we had friends come to us,” Marshall said.

“They said people want to be able to contribute to a memorial fund, and we know that this is hard to get your mind around, but you should probably start thinking about what you would like that to look like.”

It took no time for her and her husband, Kelsey Marshall, to decide what memorial fund they wanted to start: an inclusive playground in Owen’s name.

“I knew from the perspective of a parent how I wished that we had access,” Marshall said.

“But then I also knew that there were playgrounds that were being developed, designed that their whole purpose was to include all kids in all abilities.”

Like this, they began turning their shared grief into a playground project.

Just days after his passing, the Marshalls heard of an inclusive playground in Portland, Ore. called Harper’s Playground.

There was no mulch or sand surrounding the different play areas, which meant easier access for strollers and mobility devices. The entire playground was also on a level plain so that caregivers who may have their attention divided could see clearly across the park.

Most importantly, there were quality, accessible and multi-sensory play opportunities for all types of children.

The swing set, for example, included carseat-like swings with back support and high barriers to keep children from falling out. They were also big enough for a grown adult to sit in just as easily as a 5-year-old.

By the time the Marshalls held Owen’s memorial on Nov. 2, the family had an idea of what his memorial fund would look like and, from there, it took a life of its own.

In February, the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park & Recreation District’s board of commissioners unanimously approved 13,000 square feet at Rotary Park to be dedicated to the construction of an inclusive playground.

Shortly thereafter, the board approved the name “Owen’s Playground at Rotary Park” and the project landed partnerships with the Bainbridge Island Parks Foundation and the Rotary Club of Bainbridge Island.

Construction is to begin as soon as next fall.

Design of the park began this month under the direction of Chris Cain, a senior landscape architect at Studio Hanson|Roberts who is taking on the project probono.

Cain and the Marshalls have also enlisted educators, parents and caregivers of those with disabilities, pediatric occupational and physical therapists, those living with hearing and visual impairments, the Goldberg family of Harper’s Playground and, of course, kids to help design the park.

Like Harper’s Playground, the design will provide smooth, safe and accessible surfaces throughout the playground and clear sight lines so that caregivers can watch as the children play.

It will include multi-sensory play opportunities where children will experience different scents, textures, sounds and sights — all of which are important to children with sensory processing disorders. The playground may include features like a sensory plant garden, a water and sand play area or adaptive play equipment like the swing set found at Harper’s Playground.

Natural design elements will also be the underlying theme of the park with the incorporation of boulders, driftwood, sand and native plants.

For the Marshalls, the playground does two things: It holds the memory of a little boy with a lot of love, and it carries the mission to connect all people.

“The concept of ‘Hey, let’s create a place where all ages, all abilities are inspired, and engaged and excited and let’s call it a playground’ — I don’t think you can really argue that,” Marshall said.

Marshall explained that designing playgrounds to correspond with the changing needs of youth makes sense. More babies are surviving premature birth and more kids are being diagnosed on the autism spectrum and with sensory processing disorders, she said.

“There’s no reason why we can’t design the playground differently,” Marshall said.

Without Owen, Marshall explained, she might never have realized the importance of inclusiveness.

“I am not the same person that I was,” Marshall said. “He helped open my mind to all populations of people.”

Owen was nonverbal, and it wasn’t until he was about a year old that he learned how to smile. As parents of a child with disabilities, the Marshalls took to the learning curve quick. He learned how to communicate with them, and they learned how to read him.

“Owen was so much more than his disabilities,” Marshall said.

Once he figured out how to control his facial muscles enough to smile, it was his favorite thing to do, and accordingly it was easy to see what made him happiest.

“He loved, I think more so than anything, being around people, being around his family and being around children,” Marshall said.

“It was to be with people and experience joy in his own way. When you distill it down, that’s what play is all about. It’s about joy. And so the experience that we had as Owen’s parents taught us about the importance of joy, in his life, our lives, in his brother’s life.”

The playground, Marshall said, is an opportunity to inspire and uplift that kind of joy.

“To bring people together from all abilities and really reflect the way that we lived with Owen, which is to celebrate all of us, because we all have gifts that we bring,” Marshall said.

How to help

For more information or to donate to the construction of Owen’s Playground, visit www.owensplayground.org.

 

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