By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
For a child with special needs, the simple act of playing outside can present many challenges.
Some children are limited by their physical disabilities, while others may find recess or playtime overstimulating. Either way, most playgrounds aren’t built to accommodate children with special needs. But some Sudduth Elementary teachers have partnered with the GoPlay Initiative to give all children a place to play, regardless of age or ability.
The project was started by Sudduth special education teacher Brooke Kiel, who witnessed her students struggle to use the school’s playground. She applied for a small grant from GoPlay for an outdoor sensory space for her students, but GoPlay founder Heather Carson had something much bigger in mind.
“I have admired Brooke’s tenacity in creating a play space for her students. We connected quickly with the same passion, and I just felt that, as a team, we could accomplish it even though it’s going to take a lot of work,” Carson said.
GoPlay is responsible for the new playground at Henderson Ward Stewart and aided the city of Starkville with an inter-local agreement with the school district, opening up the school playgrounds to the community during after-school hours. Carson said she saw an opportunity at Sudduth and decided to make the “Sudduth Elementary Friendship Playground Project” her next priority.
“The concept is basically that it’s totally accessible to students in wheelchairs, students with walkers, students of all ability levels and all ages, so that all the kids can play together,” Kiel said.
The playground at the elementary school is not handicap accessible. The space is raised up and surrounded by wood chips, so kids who use wheelchairs or have other physical handicaps have no place to play.
“I have three wheelchair-bound students in my classroom that do not have an accessible playground. It is very heart wrenching to see children not being able to enjoy a simple thing as a playground that so many of us enjoyed each day when we were in school,” special education teacher Brooke Corban said. “They love to go outside, but the physical activity outdoors is very limited due to not having a place to play. I want my children to have the same opportunities at school that every other child at Sudduth has regardless of their ability level.”
Not only will the playground address the needs of students with physical disabilities, but also students with other special needs.
“I have a lot of students with autism and sensory needs. When there’s tons of kids out on the playground, they don’t know how to take in the sights and sounds, the movement, the texture and everything together is just too much for them,” Kiel said. “It will give them a chance to experience different things in their environment and explore it and get used to it in a safe way so that when the other classes do come out, it’s not so hard on them.”
For Sudduth interventionist Amanda May, the project has a special place in her heart. Her 3-year-old daughter has spina bifida and will soon be a student at Sudduth.
“Without this, she wouldn’t be able to use the playground at all to experience the social aspects, the physical aspects,” she said.
When GoPlay was looking into designs for the space, Carson said parents of special needs children, like May, were vital in providing feedback. It was important that the equipment be beneficial to the children, both those with and without special needs, either physically, socially or academically.
The playground will feature a universal merry-go-round that is safe for young children and those with disabilities; a roller table, where children can lay on their backs and use the overhead bars to pull themselves back and forth, which will benefit children with lower body challenges, stimulate circulation and help with muscle rehabilitation; a sensory wall, which will feature several interactive panels where children can play independently or together; and a swing that is stable and safe for children of all ages and abilities. The ground around the play space will be covered in a rubberized surfacing which will allow children with wheelchairs or walkers to move easily and safely around the playground.
The elementary school serves over 1,000 students from preschool to second grade and has seen a significant increase in special needs students over the last few years.
“Within the year and a half of my leadership here at Sudduth Elementary, we’ve added more than 100 special needs children through our pre-k program and our second self-contained program, in addition to the one self-contained program we already had,” Principal Lisa Thompson said. “The playground would fill a huge void here at Sudduth Elementary, and it will fill a void for the entire community because during non-school hours the playground is open. So the entire county, the entire community would benefit from that initiative.”
The inclusive playground will cost approximately $60,000, with approximately half of the cost coming from the rubberized surfacing. Playscapes of Mississippi, the company that will design and build the playground, has offered to do a community build, which will help offset some of the construction costs.
So far, GoPlay has raised $4,000 with the help of May’s family, but they still have a long way to go. In addition to applying for grants, the committee is looking to community members and organizations to help sponsor the project.
“We’re also doing a fundraiser here at Sudduth where we are going to make a tile wall with the kids’ artwork. The artwork gets put on a tile and then a parent purchases it and it will go up on the main wall in the school right in front of the cafeteria,” Kiel said.
Carson and Kiel said they hope to complete the project before the end of the year. Eventually, GoPlay would like to add additional phases to the project to provide a play space for older children, but that will largely depend on funding.
“Honestly, this whole process with the Friendship Playground has been a whole new level of community partnership, between the PTA leadership at Sudduth and the teachers wanting to put all their time and energy into this,” Carson said. “It’s been an inspiring experience. It shows that there is so much we can do in Starkville and in the Starkville School District.”
For more information on the project, how to volunteer or donate, visit http://www.goplaykids.org .