In early spring of last year, the Village of Valley Stream, at the urging of apraxia advocate and parent Melissa Herrera, installed a tool at village parks that would make playtime easier for her son who suffers from apraxia of speech.
It’s called a communication board, designed to help nonverbal or language-impaired kids, like Herrera’s son, share basic emotional needs and play preferences with other kids in real-time.
The move, commended by school officials as a step forward in creating a more inclusive play space, invites another question: What about school playgrounds?
Well, last November, Valley Stream District 13’s James A. Dever School added not merely a tool but made its entire playground more play-inclusive. It’s called a ‘multi-sensory’ playground.
“Unlike traditional playgrounds, which typically focus on physical activities such as swings, slides, and climbing structures, multisensory playgrounds are tailored to engage a child’s sense of sight, hearing, and touch,” noted Superintendent Judith LaRocca. The goal of the playground is to help all children, irrespective of ability, develop their fine motor skills, sharpen their cognition, and deepen their social and emotional interactions with their playmates.
This is done by peppering in playground features like tactile panels with puzzles and games, instruments, and communication boards that invite children to step into a play space with all their senses turned on and involved.
As kids move through the playrground space, noted LaRocca, they run their hands on various textured surfaces, jam out on instruments and tune into their various sounds.
It may be pure play for them, but students unwittingly learn about how their bodies move and interact with the world and how others do so in ways both similar and different to their own.
“Children are naturally curious, so the rich sensory environment stimulates creativity and imagination,” noted LaRocca.
While experts argue that all kids stand to benefit from sensory play, it offers unique advantages to kids with disabilities.
For the longest time, playground spaces have, by their design, shunned the needs of kids with language disorders or visual and hearing impairments. By offering a variety of sensory tools, these kids with disabilities can develop their senses alongside other kids at their own pace.
Teachers Tara Gunzel, Nicole Arcario, and Christy Taveira in a shared statement have called the playground a “game-changer” for students. Aside from offering kids an outlet to let their rambunctious energy run free, the play space also offers quiet spaces to calm down and regroup when emotions run high or the world can feel too much. “It’s a therapeutic outlet for emotions, offering a calming environment for overstimulated children to relax and regain control,” they noted.
The playground was paid through funding from capital project investments and cost approximately $106,000 for the complete job which includes the playground, the fencing, and play area ground preparation for the installation.