At the door I was greeted by a young man (7 years old) and his mother. “Good afternoon,” he said. “I’d like to speak to someone about this new playground. The Tree House it’s called.” I told him he had the right guy and invited them in. He had lots of questions for me during our 40-minute chat. He wanted to be absolutely sure that he and his friends would be able to use the playground just like everyone else. He said, “My best friends in the whole world use a wheelchair like me. It can be very hard for us to find places to play. Mom says that I need to be safe and that most playgrounds aren’t very safe. I need a place to play.” He was right. As playgrounds are planned or picked out of a catalog, very few consider how all kids can play safely together. Risk of injury is high and the effects of feeling left out or excluded are even higher.
I explained to him that we had taken hundreds of ideas from kids in Lititz and Lancaster to create the perfect place for every single kid to play. His mom was wiping tears from her eyes at the table behind while we spoke. His face grew more and more excited as I explained that he would be able to take ramps to make it all the way up to the tallest part of the playground, into the tree house itself. He would be protected by the poured-in-place rubber that covered the entire surface of the playground. He could swing, spin, and play hide and seek under the tall structures in the sheltered spaces below. The best playgrounds are the ones dreamed up by kids. Their creatively goes unmatched in the human family.
He motioned to his mother and she immediately got up and began rummaging in the back-pack hanging from the back of his wheelchair. She pulled out a polka-dotted piggy bank. It was a gift from his late grandmother. She had put a little money in every time she would visit. It was his entire life’s savings. After his mother placed the piggy bank on my desk, he said, “Mr. Eric, do you have a hammer?” He wanted me to do the honors of breaking it open. I found a hammer in a tool closet and together, on a Friday evening, we broke open his piggy bank and counted the money. It was $18.53. To this day, I tell folks that he was our largest donor.
Since the Tree House Playground in Lititz opened in October of 2020, we have several hundred visitors each day. Family come from all over to experience this unique and holy ground. No one ever needs to sit out because they can’t be a part of the fun. What is something that your community can dream up that becomes a gift to your neighbors? How can we better raise awareness of the importance and significance of building a world where everyone can play safely together – a place where they learn from one another, listen to one another’s stories, and build friendships and create memories that will last a lifetime? The young man who visited me on that Friday afternoon was absolutely correct in his childhood wisdom: We all need a place to play.
Eric Landram is pastor at the Lititz Church of the Brethren in Pennsylvania. He is a playground enthusiast, avid Mr. Rogers fan, and a lover of dinosaurs and LEGO sets with lots of pieces. When Eric isn’t pastoring or enjoying time with his family, he can be found racing others on the zip-line at the Tree House Playground.