By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
WYANDOTTE – New playground equipment with wheelchair ramps, sensory panels, and a shock-absorbing, protective ground level rubber-like surface makes outdoor recess accessible and fun for the special needs students at Madison Center.
Madison, at 4460 18th St. for the past five years, is a center-based special education program that serves 187 students age 3 to 26 with severe multiple and cognitive impairments from 17 school districts in southeast Wayne County outside of Detroit.
When the previous location, at 2101 Grove St., was sold to Paragon Support Systems, a non-profit organization that provides vocational and social services to people with disabilities, Madison Center program administrator April Ritz said the accessible playground equipment could not be relocated with them.
Five years of fundraising and donations from businesses, organizations and individuals raised $70,000 for its purchase and install.
Ritz said installation of the first of three phases of the new playground began in mid-August, and the playground opened officially Sept. 8, the first day of school.
Sneaky’s Bar and Grill in Woodhaven donated the proceeds from three annual Megan Rose memorial motorcycle rides to benefit special needs children. The third ride, held Aug. 29, raised $9,205 for the playground.
Ritz said a little less than half of the playground cost was for the equipment itself, and the rest was for excavating, site preparation, fencing, sidewalks, and special impact-absorbing safety surfacing.
Wheelchair ramps and safety surfacing are an important component of the playground, Ritz said.
The rubber-like, shock-absorbing safety surface, 3 to 4 inches deep, is poured in. Ritz said that unlike wood chip surfaces, it can’t be picked up and thrown or ingested, and is cleaner. It cushions the falls of ambulatory users, and it is easy for wheelchair users to move across.
Katie Bradd, who teaches the center’s youngest students with severe cognitive impairment, said their students rely heavily on sensory experience, and they like the texture and feel of the safety surfacing.
“They’re feeling it, and they’re rolling on it,” Bradd said. “They experience things a little bit different that your typically developing child does, but they still have a lot of fun doing it.”
The playscape has stairs in addition to wheelchair ramps.
“We chose one set of stairs for the students to work on their stair climbing,” Ritz said. “That is always helpful for our students that have that as a physical therapy goal, in order to get on and off the bus, for instance.”
Other playground components include a balance beam, and a solid surface climber that students can use with assistance, or independently, and which doesn’t have openings users could fall through.
“We’re very choosy in the selections we made,” Ritz said, “because a lot of pieces of equipment that you see on typical playgrounds just don’t work best for our students.”
Sensory panels have Braille labels, and contrasting colors are used on the playground, with bright green entry points in contrast to the beige with gray flecks on the safety surface.
Phase one of the playground includes a playscape and an interactive music panel.
For phase two, Madison Center supporters will continue fundraising for an ambulatory and wheelchair accessible motion glider sensory area, a playscape structure students can traverse using arm strength, and a workout station designed for older students.
A proposed third phase would add adaptive swing sets. Ritz estimates $40,000 to $50,000 will be needed for the final two phases.
Ritz said when they designed the playground, they decided it was important to have a place accessible to students of all abilities for recreation and social activity with their same-age peers and others in the community.
Katie Bradd, who teaches the center’s youngest children with severe cognitive impairment, said unlike traditional playground designs, their playscape avoids high places and openings from which students might fall, and the slides are accessible.
“They deserve a playground experience just like any other child,” Bradd said. “It’s a huge part of growing up.”
Bradd said student reaction to the new playground has been enthusiastic.
“What’s interesting, too, about this is most of the time our students will sit and play with one toy repetitively, but out here, they are all over the place,” Bradd said. “They play on the musical stuff, they go down the slide, they’re up and down the ramp. They are able to run out all of their energy.”
The students are able to focus more easily on instructional activities in the classroom, and for longer periods of time after engaging in outside gross motor activity, Bradd said.
Paraprofessional Michelle Stechschulte said the playground has had a positive impact on the student’s lives.
“To be able to get this now and have them do therapy and stuff on it is just amazing,” Stechschulte said. “They learn to ask for it and to make choices – to go to the slides, to play the drums on the music station – so it’s amazing.”
Ritz said it was gratifying to see the students use the new playground for the first time after their five-year funding-raising effort.
“It’s something that they deserve just like any other student deserves,” Ritz said. “So it was a great day when we finally had it open and available for them to play on.”
Bradd said seeing the students’ joy when they first explored the playground was a moving experience for the staff.
“Their joy is my joy,” Bradd said. “Being excited to come to school is always a fantastic thing, so I think it’s just been a really important component of our instruction and our education of our students here at Madison.”