A new sensory playground at John Dolan School was expected to create a welcoming atmosphere for the school's students and children of all abilities, but Charmaine Bellamy says the profound effect it had on both her son and herself came as a surprise.
Bellamy, a John Dolan parent and board of education trustee, says her son, Luke, is significantly impacted by autism, is non-verbal and has a number of medical conditions. He doesn't embrace the offerings of a regular playground but the opportunity to experience the unique apparatus at his school's new playground was a special experience for both mother and son.
"I was shocked to witness him confidently walking up the gradual ramps on the playground to explore without fear and without hesitation," Bellamy said. "We watched him find numerous activities to engage in and he had the skill level to use them. We watched him find joy in listening to the sounds of the many sensory activities around the playground. He was nervous about the swings but I helped him on to one, pulled the safety bar over his head and he slowly seemed to realize that he was safe."
He went from being scared to being excited, and when he later wanted to go on the swings again he was joined by two other children on the playground.
"At that moment there was an imprint on my heart that will never leave. It changed my understanding of equity and inclusion forever," Bellamy said. "My son was at the playground doing the exact same thing as the other two children. He actually initiated the activity and the others followed him. In his 12 years I've never witnessed anything like it."
The $564,000 playground was paid for solely through fundraising spearheaded by the school's parent council. The effort was supported by donations that included a $25,000 contribution from Kinsmen Telemiracle.
A Liberty swing allows students in wheelchairs to experience the freedom of flying through the air. The main play structure includes a variety of sensory panels and is designed to be fully accessible and inclusive while still offering opportunities for different skill/ability levels through the use of climbers, stairs, and slides. There are also three other areas which include interactive panels for touch, sound, and sight including the sensory whirlpool and shadow play flowers.
The play structure and other apparatuses are surrounded by a colourful, rubberized play surface that allows both wheelchairs and tricycles to roll easily.
Principal Kathleen Underwood said the playground has numerous benefits for students at John Dolan School, which serves intensive-support students ranging from four to 22 years of age.
"Besides the sheer joy of watching them play together on the playground, we recognize as educators the benefit and the challenge to their independence as they make choices and develop preferences for specific areas available to them on the playground," she said.
"It meets their sensory needs as well in ways that have not be available to them previously, particularly for our students for who the Liberty wheelchair swing has added a brand new dimension to their experience to move through space."
There are benefits to the students' personal and social wellbeing as they interact with each other, take turns and share the space with their peers and with visitors who staff and students encounter when they come out for play time on the playground.
"It enhances their experiences together at school and ensures a space where they can also come with their families and caregivers and share experiences as a family."