Amy Barzach
Ashoka Fellow since 2002   |   United States

Amy Barzach

Boundless Playgrounds
Amy is assisting people in the creation of barrier-free, developmentally advantageous playgrounds, thereby challenging cultural stereotypes and current practices that exclude children with…
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This description of Amy Barzach's work was prepared when Amy Barzach was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Amy is assisting people in the creation of barrier-free, developmentally advantageous playgrounds, thereby challenging cultural stereotypes and current practices that exclude children with disabilities from public play spaces and creating environments where children of all abilities can have the best opportunities for healthy development.

The New Idea

Amy's idea was to create a national resource center to help communities build play areas that address the developmental needs of children of all abilities and the principles of universal design, thus breaking down barriers between individuals with and without physical, sensory, and developmental disabilities. She envisions an integrated world, where everyone is empowered and welcomed to contribute because children of all abilities grew up playing and learning together. A world where people celebrate similarities and appreciate differences. The way Amy and her partner Jean Schappet envisioned this national resource center, it would start by educating and coaching communities and corporations about why and how to create barrier-free playgrounds. Assistance would range from technical advice with the initial stages of project planning and volunteer recruitment, to configuration of the playground environments, community partnerships, and coaching on how to do fundraising. By helping each community identify their unique values through a Values and OutcomesSM planning session, conducted with adult supporters of a project, and a Dreaming and Design PartySM held with groups of children with varying abilities, Amy and Jean developed a program that was both practical and inspiring. Community-specific play environment ideas would emerge from these exercises; and the participating communities would then take these ideas to playground companies, local landscape architects and engineers, who formalize designs and oversee the building of playgrounds where children of all abilities can learn essential life skills through play. In addition to providing community assistance, the plan was to work with local, regional, and national equipment manufacturers and government officials to educate and train them on why and how to create barrier-free and developmentally advantageous playgrounds. They also plan to develop collaborations and partnerships with related organizations to enhance the impact and effectiveness of their efforts. Amy is dedicated to advocating for nongovernmental and governmental solutions to the struggle of creating standards that incorporate the true spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act into children's play environments. At the core, she is changing the mindset of how people look at playgrounds.

The Problem

Play is an essential part of a child's life, impacting the way a child learns, regardless of ability or disability. However, there is a growing attitude that play is not a critical component to a child's upbringing. Organizations such as the National Network for Child Care and the National Parent Teacher Association are studying the "anti-play" attitude that has grown over the past few decades, and are proving that play directly promotes a child's development and self-esteem, as well as determining the way a child navigates in the world. Playgrounds are one of the primary gathering spaces in a community, if not the primary space for low-income families, that enhance children's growth through play. However, one child of every ten worldwide has some type of disability that makes it difficult or impossible for that child to use traditional playgrounds. When these areas for play are limited for children with disabilities, their ability to interact with typically able children is limited also, and a pattern of separation and prejudice often is established. If you are not prejudiced against children and people with disabilities yourself, you would be hard pressed to imagine just how much disabilities exist. The Americans with Disabilities Act, created in 1990, "prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation." It is enforceable where the majority of playgrounds are located–in schools and parks. However, there are vague, minimal requirements for playground equipment, playground access routes, and accessible playground surfaces. These minimal requirements often guide state governments to spend millions of dollars adding a few pieces of equipment to all school playgrounds, without assessing whether children with disabilities will be able to reach the equipment or utilize the playground once they have been able to get into it. Too often these playgrounds have ramps that "lead to nowhere" and transfer platforms that leave children with disabilities having to leave their support equipment like wheelchairs behind. While other organizations are attempting to address this issue, they lack Amy's vision to educate the public, create demand for manufacturers, raise the bar in policy, and ultimately reverse the trend of discrimination that has been created by the separation of children with typical abilities from children without disabilities during play, which is a critical time for learning.

The Strategy

Since Boundless Playgrounds® was established by Amy, Jean Schappet and a passionate team of parents and professionals in 1997, more than sixty-nine barrier-free playgrounds have been created in nineteen states. More than one hundred playgrounds are currently in active development. Dozens of requests for help and information are received and responded to by Boundless Playgrounds' Connecticut headquarters every month. The requests, coming from the United States and around the world, will spur the need for expansion. With the core model in place, Boundless Playgrounds is expanding services and infrastructure through a regional initiative strategy, which was launched with a four- year grant from NFL Charities.

Boundless Playgrounds is pleased with the advances they have been able to make in new markets. Without the continued support of NFL Charities, Boundless Playgrounds would not have been able to invest in these new opportunities that educate communities on the importance of "Play for All Children." We continue to explore opportunities to enter new metro-market areas that will bring Boundless Playgrounds play environments to underserved areas, such as Chicago and Atlanta. NFL Charities has made it possible for our Outreach and Education Coordinators to educate municipal officials, parks and recreation officials, community representatives and playground industry professionals in these markets.

Furthermore, work with the City of Chicago, Office of People with Disabilities and the Chicago Park District to create an extraordinary Boundless Playground at Columbus Park on the west side of Chicago in support of the city's goal of developing standards for children's play environments are currently in development. Presentations have been given to the Chicago Mayor's Office of Persons with Disabilities for developing citywide standards for accessible playgrounds. They broadly and enthusiastically accepted Boundless Playgrounds applications for design that focuses on children's predictable play behaviors and meaningful accommodations to support play. Being able to impact and educate the Chicago Park District officials on the importance of Boundless Playgrounds' "Play for All Children" strategies is an excellent example of what Boundless Playgrounds has been able to do as a result of the NFL charities grant.

From the start, Amy's model focuses on educating community members to look at play from the perspectives of both typically able children and children with disabilities. After the establishment of playgrounds, Boundless Playgrounds staff and volunteers work as continuing education instructors. Public education is critical to Boundless Playgrounds' success. The benefits are threefold: Boundless Playgrounds assists in creating public awareness of the need for and benefits of barrier-free playgrounds, public awareness then acts as a catalyst to reverse the prejudices associated with disabilities and it provides solutions that help to address childhood obesity.

Recognizing one in four of the youth population under age 19 is considered obese, Boundless Playgrounds has committed itself to addressing the rising concerns of child obesity. Amy has pursued this endeavor by meeting with the Surgeon General of the United States, thanks to a contact made through a personal friend who arranged the session. She was able to elicit support for the Boundless Playgrounds mission to promote active lifestyles for children of all abilities through play. In addition, the Boundless Playgrounds staff was able to secure a partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding the "I can do it; you can do it!" Initiative. The goal of the program is to increase physical fitness and health for children across America. Amy's ability to recognize the value of play in every child's life as a means to increase physical fitness makes Boundless Playgrounds unique in its task. To date, the work completed by Amy and Boundless Playgrounds has taken considerable steps towards addressing childhood obesity. Another important strategy includes collaborating with other organizations and playground manufacturers to impact the entire industry.

Moreover, Boundless Playgrounds is open to and working with other nonprofits that strive to make the world a better place for children, with and without disabilities, including Kaboom. Although Kaboom is dedicated to the idea of accessible playgrounds for all, its focus is organizing urban communities to build safe playgrounds and skate parks as empowerment projects for low-income communities. As an unbiased, knowledgeable but neutral nonprofit organization, Boundless Playgrounds works collaboratively with playground equipment producers, vendors and design professionals who are committed to Boundless Playgrounds performance criteria for play environments that are configured to address the developmental needs of children. Boundless Playgrounds is dedicated to helping the industry prepare for increasing public awareness and demand. Training workshops designed for manufacturers, government municipalities, park and recreation departments, and community organizations are conducted regularly. Amy also has worked with chapters of the American Institution of Architecture and the American Society of Landscape Architects to provide continuing education credits for professionals who complete a Boundless Playgrounds training course. Additionally, Boundless Playgrounds' web site was upgraded in 2003 with funding provided by The Picower Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. More information on education and training is available on their web site.

Boundless Playgrounds is also funded through grants and contributions, most notably a three-year initial grant of $521,000 from the Hasbro Children's Foundation awarded in 1998 which helped to fuel Boundless Playgrounds' early growth. As Boundless Playgrounds continues to grow, its funding base is shifting to include technical assistance program fees obtained through projects in development and state challenge grant initiatives. Statewide initiatives in Connecticut, Maryland and Florida have been launched as a result of legislation, providing matching grants for private resources. Furthermore, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation was the first foundation to offer support and assist Boundless Playgrounds in launching the Maryland statewide initiative. This benchmark not only ensures future funding and expansion of Boundless Playgrounds, but also highlights the growing support that will be the key to future policy change.

The Connecticut Boundless Playgrounds Initiative (CBPI) laid the foundation for the development of 15 playgrounds from a catalyst grant of one million dollars. These funds translated into 3.5 million dollars in matching private dollars for public playgrounds and mobilized these communities around the increased awareness that play matters for children of all abilities. This program was so successful that the state recently passed another one million dollars (CBPI2) for playgrounds to be built in at least six additional communities. Both pieces of legislation were part of a bi-partisan effort in the legislature between President Pro Tempore Senator Kevin Sullivan and Lieutenant Governor Jodi M. Rell.

Mark Shriver, a Maryland State Legislator from Montgomery County, proposed a statewide initiative to foster the development of barrier-free playgrounds in conjunction with Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening and Boundless Playgrounds. The one million dollar Maryland Boundless Playgrounds Initiative (MBPI) was the first state initiative which raised 3 million non-state dollars, resulting in 10 Boundless Playgrounds for the state.

Currently underway Governor Jeb Bush is utilizing his stature as Governor of Florida to encourage corporations and private citizens to create 50 Boundless Playgrounds throughout the state. The initiative focuses on pre-existing budgets for playgrounds at a municipal level and encourages them to build to the performance criteria put forth by Boundless Playgrounds. We are also working to leverage foundation dollars as challenge grants to local educational and other institutions such as YMCAs to build barrier-free and developmentally advantageous playgrounds. State-wide sponsors are solicited to support education and outreach efforts throughout Florida by underwriting marketing and media costs.

And five to ten years down the road, Amy envisions barrier-free playgrounds around the world, an additional model specifically tailored for schools, a line in the Federal budget for matching funds, as well as a Boundless Playgrounds equipment line. Most importantly, Amy continues to expand her vision for the potential of Boundless Playgrounds to break down barriers between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. She is focused on the insight that "Children who have had the chance to play together in barrier-free play environments will be more socially tolerant, better resources of social capital, and more productive citizens."

The Person

Like many children growing up in upstate New York in the 1960s, Amy Jaffe Barzach ran a lemonade stand in the summertime. However, unlike most children, Amy charted her profits. The bottom line was important because she donated the profits to a local charity that helped children. And, if daily lemonade sales weren't as high as Amy anticipated, she would add money from her own piggybank, so that she could help as many children as possible. It was Amy's father, dedicated to rebuilding urban community housing, who taught her entrepreneurship at an early age. "Our family had its ups and downs financially" remembers Amy. "He taught me to never get discouraged, take risks, learn from mistakes, and keep moving forward." She credits her father and mother, an urban high school teacher, for her strong character. This character was tested in high school when Amy was diagnosed with scoliosis, and temporarily had to wear a back brace with metal poles that went up above her neck. She became aware of the challenges and prejudices facing individuals with physical disabilities. Her compassion and interest grew when she entered the University of New York at Albany, befriending and becoming a reader for a student who was blind. Although she continued to learn and care about the needs of people with disabilities, Amy focused on business and economics. After graduating in 1982, she became a marketing manager for a shopping center development and eventually a retail-marketing consultant, helping "underdog" retailers compete with the major players. "I found that I loved having a problem and finding a solution_ helping others to figure out the long-term picture," Amy states.

Then in 1994, watching her oldest son at the local playground, Amy saw a young girl in a wheelchair who couldn't play with the others. It was a defining moment for Amy, which re-ignited her interest in disability issues. Six weeks later, without prior warning, Amy's youngest son, Jonathan, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. He lived less than a year. The hospital suggested that Amy and her husband Peter do something in Jonathan's memory. Recalling the young girl at the playground, Amy and Peter set out to build a universally accessible playground for their Connecticut community. Organizing over twelve hundred volunteers and raising thousands of dollars in donations, "Jonathan's Dream," a twenty-five thousand square foot fully integrated, universally accessible playground, was completed in the fall of 1996. After the completion of "Jonathan's Dream," Time Magazine ran a small article about the innovation. Hundreds of requests for help came in from all over the country, validating Amy's assumptions that this was a pressing societal need. "Jonathan's Dream" quickly became the inspiration for Boundless Playgrounds. Consequently, Amy left her profitable career as a vice president of marketing. She has since been honored with awards from Parenting Magazine, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the "Women at Their Best Award" from Saturn cars and Glamour magazine. "This is the life work that I was destined to do," exclaims Amy. "All of my experiences have led me to where I am now_and in ten years it is my hope that the work we are doing now and will do in the future will start to make a significant difference in our world. I will be the leader who educates, inspires, and takes this [work] in new directions."

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