A campaign to make playgrounds accessible for children with special needs could see a flagship site built in Westminster.
Mother Sara Momtaz is campaigning for play areas adapted for kids with both physical and learning disabilities, such as slides and swings for wheelchairs, and communication boards to provide information to parents.
The centrepiece of her project, called All Play, will be in Church Street Ward, with plans also in the works to include similar equipment on another smaller site near Westbourne Park.
There are currently 16 council maintained playgrounds in Westminster, but despite having one of the youngest populations in the country with 13.1% of residents aged below 15, provision of facilities is some of the lowest in the country at nearly 2000 children per park – 3 times higher than the national average.
Momtaz, 42, has previously written several books for children with learning disabilities, spotted a large gap in Britain’s infrastructure: “I was thinking about the parks project for a year and a half and I was thinking ‘How do we do this?’. So I’ve done a lot research in terms of looking at where do we have these kind of facilities in the UK and I honestly couldn’t find one.”
She pointed out that while some existing playgrounds in Westminster, such as the Paddington Recreation Centre, already offer adapted equipment, the parks themselves were not accessible for wheelchairs.
Her daughter was born with major heart failure just before Covid, and was also diagnosed with Down Syndrome. After moving to London from Dubai, Momtaz says she was inspired to act when she saw children with special needs isolated and left out while their friends and siblings were able to have fun in local parks.
She said: “I was in the park one day and I remember seeing a little boy in a wheelchair, probably around about 7 or 8 years old. He was with his brother and sister and his mum. They all sat down on the bench in the playground, and his brother and sister were having an absolute whale of a time running around just having so much fun, and there was this look of disappointment on his face I will never forget. And I remember looking at him and thinking ‘we’ve got to do something to change that’.
“And that has always been imprinted in my mind. Why does he have to sit there not be able to play with his siblings and friends. Because we’re just isolating him even more.”
Momtaz is working with both the Council and students at the University of Westminster to realise her vision of ‘a real community contribution’. In the long term she is campaigning for legislation to be introduced to require all local authorities in the UK to provide accessible playgrounds.
Her plans focus on five key areas: play zones that cater to children of different ages, fully accessible pathways with sensory tunnels, quiet zones for relaxing and adults to breastfeed and provisions for those with speech and reading impairments, incorporating ideas such as a ‘sensory zone’, and communications boards.
At University of Westminster, students in its School of Architecture and Cities are working on designs to present to stakeholders and the council.
A spokesperson for the University said: “The University of Westminster has a long and established place within our local communities.
“Since our founding we have stood out as innovators, committed to tackling social inequalities and making the world a better place.
“The All Play project provides the opportunity to work on and support the implementation of a live project that will be mutual beneficial for our local community members and families, our students and the wider Westminster borough and hopefully in the long term communities across the country.”
Councillor Nafsika Butler-Thalassis, Councillor for Maida Vale ward said that plans for the site in Little Venice were ‘ambitious’ but still at design stage, adding that they were waiting on an archaeological and tree survey to see ‘what we can do with the area’.
She also confirmed that the Council were committed to completely refurbishing the site in Westbourne Park which she said had been ‘very neglected by the previous administration’.
But Momtaz is determined that these new play areas don’t become zones exclusively for children with special needs. She said: “I don’t want people to consider this as a park for children for disabilities. No it’s not. It’s a park for everyone.”
Main image: Sara Momtaz.