The Play Brigade

week 48:  this week i'm gonna... help all kids play.

Dawn Oates, founder of Play Brigade, wither her daughter, Harper.  Photo credit: Boston Common Magazine

Dawn Oates, founder of Play Brigade, wither her daughter, Harper.
Photo credit: Boston Common Magazine

Harper was born blue -- not pink and rosy-cheeked like her older twin siblings. She was born with incomplete quadriplegia; both her legs and portions of her arms and hands are paralyzed. In the beginning, Dawn Oates and her husband, Justin, felt shattered by all the things Harper couldn't do - walk, stand, sit by herself, eat, or use her fingers. But then Dawn began to see all the wonderful things Harper could do. “She can smile, she can talk, she can make friends, she can read, she can experience art, she can laugh, and she can love.” What she could do eclipsed what she couldn’t. 

Dawn hoped that Harper would get to experience many of the same joys as her siblings - playing at the playground, going on school field trips, hiking and skiing with her family.  But Dawn quickly learned that “wheelchair accessible” might indicate a ramp to get in, but not shared access to the equipment, other kids, or the fun. "Harper has taught us that despite our children’s differences in ability, they want to play. Together."

Dawn and her family learned that the barrier to inclusion is not disability, but design. So Dawn created The Play Brigade, making it her mission to help Harper and other children do what all kids do best: play.

photo credit: Kate T. Parker Photography

photo credit: Kate T. Parker Photography


The Play Brigade's mission is to create opportunities for inclusive play, recreation, and sports, where everyone participates and belongs, regardless of age or ability. They believe children raised in inclusive communities become compassionate, smart, empathetic, courageous individuals who are good problem-solvers and team players.

The Play Brigade believes inclusion...

  • embraces the 20% of Americans living with a disability today.
  • means more than ADA compliant or handicapped accessible.
  • is the cornerstone of community.
  • respects people with disabilities and their families as a blessing, not a burden, to their communities.

The Play Brigade creates change by forming alliances with others who are committed to making inclusion a priority and who have the desire, ability, and leadership position to effect change within their organization or municipality. They also consult with organizations on what changes they can make that will have great impact toward being more inclusive.

You can watch a segment from WCVB Boston regarding The Play Brigade here.

Harper's story is a common one. There are children and adults in every neighborhood who are missing opportunities to interact with their peers and their community in fun and meaningful ways because they are overlooked in the design and planning process. 

photo credit: Kate T. Parker Photography

photo credit: Kate T. Parker Photography

The Play Brigade brings inclusion to the center of all that they do and believe that everyone participating and belonging is the cornerstone of community. They work to find new, more thoughtful ways to approach “typical” play and raise the bar above "ADA compliant." They create awareness of inclusion as a social problem, illustrating how individuals and entire communities benefit when every person has the opportunity to participate and belong. 

The Play Brigade is currently partnering with the Town of Brookline Parks and Open Space Division to create a flagship playground in Brookline, MA that will go far beyond ADA accessible and will allow people of all ages and abilities to play and have fun. The project is currently in the design review process, and final plans will reflect the town’s support of community inclusion in play, recreation, and sports.

The City of Boston Parks and Recreation Department has also asked The Play Brigade to provide strategic consulting on the renovation of Children's Park Playground in Roxbury. With The Play Brigade's help, this playground will soon become an accessible, inclusive space. 

Every day The Play Brigade includes more kids, more families, and more caretakers in a world of play, inviting all to participate regardless of ability. In The Play Brigade's story, exclusion loses. Life wins.

Notes for this week:

  • November 29th is #GivingTuesday and December 3rd is International Day of People With Disabilities.
  • Our collective givetwig donation will help fund one of the many important projects underway, such as adding accessible play equipment to playgrounds and an all-abilities road race to be held in the Boston Common in October 2017.
  • For more information regarding The Play Brigade, please check out their website.