When Cynthia Palmeri takes her kids to the playground, it’s usually stop-and-go.
Her daughter, Maya, runs: to the swing set, to the slide, to the monkey bars. Jonah, on the other hand, hesitates. He has autism, a developmental disability that makes communicating abstract thoughts and forming relationships with his classmates at Fairview Elementary more challenging.
“He'll look you and the environment up and down before he does anything,” Palmeri reveals. Still, she wants both her 10-year-olds to gain knowledge on the playground as well as in the classroom. “There's a lot of aspects to play, but for children with autism and other disabilities, there's a social aspect too,” she explains.
And when Palmeri took both her kids to an inclusive, accessible playground in South Carolina earlier this year, she witnessed something incredible. “He didn't have that hesitation,” she recalls. “I tried to take video, but they were just going so fast. They were just running from equipment to equipment.”
That playground included features you won’t find at Fairview Elementary: accessible slides, ramps, wheelchair-friendly surfacing, and specially designed swings for children with disabilities.
“Children of different abilities stop before they enter the [Fairview] play space,” Palmeri explains. “But what if they didn't have to? For that play to just continue, and for me, just watching the laughter continue all through that [South Carolina] play space was just awesome. That's our goal here.”
A sense of equalitySince then, Palmeri has been part of a parent group that's working to bring that vision to Fairview Elementary and the broader community.
Principal Jennifer Reed estimates that special needs children account for more than 16 percent of the school’s 775 students, because they get bused there from all across the Reynolds School District.
“We have students here from Oakley, Haw Creek and Bell, as well as our own intensive intervention students from Fairview,” says Reed. “Last year, we had six children in wheelchairs.”
But the school's green, hilly playground doesn’t give those kids the same opportunity for play as their peers. “It's very sloped, and wheelchairs probably can't get farther than 15 feet into the space,” notes Reed, scanning the 3.5-acre play area.
“There's just the potential for so much beautiful learning and sharing and growing for kids at all ends of the spectrum,” parent volunteer Jill Frayne chimes in. “If my child's on a more fully functional end of the spectrum, to learn to interact with and help and play and just befriend other children, I think that's about as good as it gets.”
But after completing a physical survey of the space and compiling an initial wish list for the site, Reed says the price tag was hefty. “We've been throwing out the number $150,000, and that's just a guesstimate at this point, because we don't have the entire plan,” she explains.
Rob Dull, lead designer at Snow Creek Landscaping, has been donating his services to the school and the parent group. By next month, he expects to have preliminary drawings for the group.
The sloping space, notes Dull, creates opportunities for innovation. “One of the things we've thrown around is an in-ground slide,” he reveals. “Why fight the natural landscape if we can make it work?”
The architect says he tries to complete one pro bono community project per year, and this playground was “a no-brainer.”
“More than anything, it's about not having separation: having all kids play in the same area, regardless of needs,” he says. “We are graced in Asheville with a good sense of equality. I think to be able to carry that down from young adults to the children is important.”
All together now
The idea for the playground grew out of a broader vision of inclusion and accessibility.
Earlier this summer, horticultural therapist April Peterson began working with the school system to take its community garden to another level literally.
In January, Peterson started taking physically disabled Fairview Elementary students into the on-site community garden to plant seeds, water flowers and yank weeds. The conditions, however, were far from ideal.
“Some of the kids in wheelchairs were really excited about being there, but it was just really challenging for them to get down to the ground,” Peterson explains. At Bullington Gardens in Hendersonville, however, she’d seen beds built high enough to accommodate wheelchair users; why couldn’t the same concept be applied here?
This summer, volunteering alongside more than 20 Warren Wilson College students, Peterson and members of Fairview Elementary’s Garden Committee built the Ability Garden in a day.
Judith Naisang, one of the school's five intensive-intervention teachers, loves seeing what garden time can do for her students.
“They enjoy digging in the dirt, exploring, showering everybody (because they get to water the plants),” she says. “They really like the aspect of 'The dirt's here, and the shovel's there, and here I can pull things up.' It's just a very positive experience.”
And with a series of fundraisers planned, Reed says she hopes to see those positive experiences extended to the playground within the next couple of years.
“We're really trying to get this vision down on paper,” she says, adding that the group hopes a joint-use agreement will enable the community at large to take advantage of the new facility as well.
In the meantime, Palmeri is inspired by the memory of watching her own two children “enjoy the same space to socialize, to laugh together, to chase each other to a piece of equipment and climb together. They just did every single thing together on that playground.”
To get involved or find out more information, contact Jill Frayne at Jfrayne91@gmail.com
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