Inclusivity and accessibility are two main goals of the eight districts that make up the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts. And, the districts don’t limit efforts to achieving inclusivity and accessibility inside classrooms; they carry over to include recreational spaces and playgrounds. These important spaces are where children can enjoy fresh air; get physical exercise; and develop cognitive, social, and emotional skills. An inclusive playground removes barriers between children, despite any differences, and gives them opportunities to play and grow together.
“As county special services school districts, we owe it to our students to have a stimulating play environment where children, despite their disabilities or challenges, can safely play together,” said Dr. Howard Lerner, Superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District (BCSSSD) and Chairman of the Joint Council. “Playgrounds are the source of such simple, pure joy, and every child deserves to experience that.”
The Bleshman Regional Day School, part of BCSSSD, educates students ages three through 21, with multiple disabilities. The school’s fully accessible playground is complete with an adapted basketball net, gazebos, and wheelchair-accessible picnic tables. Outfitted with a rubberized surface for an added layer of safety around the equipment, the playground offers all students fun options for outdoor play. The jungle gym consists of slides, a basic climbing area that helps students practice coordination, a wheelchair ramp, and multiple sets of swings. The playground has seated swings, which offer more support than a traditional swing, and special swings designed to accommodate students in wheelchairs by allowing them to enjoy the flying, free feeling without having to leave their chairs.
Specialized wheelchair swings vary in design, but all are costly pieces of equipment that also require special preparation of the grounds to ensure the safety of the users and those nearby. Salem County Special Services School District (SCSSSD) purchased one in spring of 2020 and is excited to finally see it in use.
“It’s worth the price tag,” said Meggin Wentzell, Principal of SCSSSD’s Cumberland Campus. “These swings not only give the student more independence, which we are always working towards, but also take the strain off our staff members, who otherwise would lift children out of their chairs and maneuver them onto seated swings so they could experience this childhood rite of passage. It’s such a simple pleasure, and we are excited to better offer that to our students.”
The Cape May County Special Services School District (CMCSSSD) is in the process of fundraising to purchase a specialized wheelchair swing for its playground and to cover costs associated with installation. It’s just one piece of the renovation project happening at the school’s two playgrounds, which were built nearly 20 years ago.
“All children love playgrounds, and all children should be able to enjoy them,” said Jamie Moscony, Assistant Superintendent of CMCSSSD. “We have a whole committee working along with our PT, OT, Speech Development specialists, teachers, and students to expand the footprint and ensure the space is best used for all our students to enjoy. It’s been so wonderful to see the collaboration.”
Collaboration has been key in the planning and development of these playgrounds. Each district seeks input from staff on how to best accommodate students, yet also challenge students and help reinforce things they learn in school.
“It’s learning in a different environment and also transferring skills you acquired in the classroom to a community-like setting,” said Wentzell. “And the students just love it. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to come back inside!”
SCSSSD has a fenced-in, three-acre backyard, which recently underwent renovations to include a new half-mile walking track that goes around the perimeter. Administrators were hoping it would encourage everyone to get outdoors more often, and it has. Both students and staff have been taking advantage of the space.
“On any nice day you can find learning happening outside – physical education, health, music therapy, and more. As educators we always talk about how you can teach anywhere, so why not go outside in the fresh air and sunshine and enjoy being in nature? The kids just love it,” emphasized Wentzell.
BCSSSD also recently installed a newly paved path that leads students from their classrooms to the playground. While the path gives students clear and barrier-free access to the playground equipment, the smooth surface also is being used by students in adapted tricycles and gait trainers, helping them build up their endurance.
“There’s nothing like seeing the smiles on the students’ faces as they play outside,” said Mitch Badiner, Director of Instruction for BCSSSD. “This outdoor area has quickly proven to be a valuable space where physical activity and social-emotional learning come together in a way that the children really enjoy.”
The Bankbridge Development Center, part of Gloucester County Special Services School District (GCSSSD), also utilizes its outdoor space to engage students using something called core boards. The boards, varying in sizes and located around all of the outside playground areas, help students communicate with staff. The core boards, also known as communications boards, display photos, symbols, or illustrations to help those with limited language skills express themselves. By pointing at pictures on the boards, staff members can identify what students are trying to convey.
“We are in the second year of our Core Word Curriculum that coincides with our playground and classroom core boards,” explained Michael Dicken, Superintendent of GCSSSD. “This curriculum focuses on one core or “power word” a month for all teachers, staff, parents and caregivers, and students to focus on learning through literacy, sensory, music, and motor skills. Extending these lessons outside of the home and classroom and into areas like our playground has been a great reinforcement.”
These communications boards also are becoming increasingly popular in outdoor play areas, which help promote both independence and inclusion for children who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). SCSSSD is hoping to install a large one in its play area, and CMCSSSD also is considering it as part of the planned playground overhaul.
BCSSSD has a whole wall that encourages activity through the use of cutting-edge technology in the New Bridges Middle and High School, which serves students with Autism. An interactive soccer wall in the outdoor play area offers multiple games that are challenging and exciting for all ages and abilities. Illuminated LED panels register ball contact using vibration sensors. The manufacturer, Yalp, prides itself on creating products that have no barriers, are not stigmatizing, and are accessible for all abilities.
“We are always learning, growing, and adapting in special services,” said Lerner. “We try to embrace anything that opens doors for our students in any aspect, even playground equipment and designs. So many of these spaces are works in progress, because we always want to add meaningful, educational, and fun components to engage our students. School is allowed to be fun, and we’ve had a good time designing these areas with all of our students in mind.”
LIVE AUCTION PLANNED TO HELP CMCSSSD PURCHASE SWING
While districts budget for playground enhancements, bigger purchases are often made possible with support from corporate or community donors. CMCSSSD recently began fundraising to assist with the purchase of a wheelchair accessible swing. The district has planned a virtual live auction on Friday, November 12, 2021 from 6-7:30 p.m. For more information, please click here to visit the CMCSSSD website.