What used to be a weedy patch of asphalt tucked in behind Cannonsburg Elementary School is now a haven where disabled students can explore and play.
A paved patio area with tables and sun umbrellas leads to a low white picket fence surrounding a large playground.
On the playground are two swing sets, a climbing set with slide and a small merry-go-round, all surrounded with a thick layer of cushiony wood chips.
The playground, three years in the making, provides an outdoor learning environment for students with moderate to severe learning disabilities, said Heather Brown, a special education teacher at Cannonsburg.
Brown and her students hosted parents, faculty and administrators in a dedication ceremony Thursday for the playground, which was recently completed.
The students, their faces framed by construction-paper flowers, sang songs of thanks for the playground, which depended largely on donations for equipment and construction.
“They are the flowers in our garden at this school,” Brown said.
There is more than meets the eye on the playground, which at first glance looks similar to other playgrounds. The design and all the equipment had to meet the needs of disabled students, Brown said.
For instance, one of the swing sets includes a swing designed for some of the wheelchair-bound children who don’t have the upper-body strength or balance to use regular swings. And children turn the merry-go-round with their hands on a center wheel, which makes it usable for those who can’t run around its perimeter.
Everything is spaced widely and with wheelchair access in mind.
The patio area includes three raised planters, one with bright flowers, another with fragrant herbs and a third filled with plants chosen for their interesting textures. It’s a sensory garden that invites the children to look, smell and touch.
The garden helps children learn to process and coordinate sensory information, and helps calm them.
Among the community leaders who were applauded Thursday was Mandy Kidwell, whose I Believe Foundation raised the money for one of the pieces of playground equipment.
The foundation did that by dedicating half the proceeds from one of its annual benefit golf matches to the project, Kidwell said.
Kidwell, an occupational therapist who works with the children at Cannonsburg, started the foundation with two friends, Jackie Martin and Amy Johnson, who also are occupational therapists.
In their jobs they see the challenges faced by families of disabled children and wanted to ease their burden somehow, according to Kidwell. “You see the everyday struggles they go through,” she said.
Kidwell knew her students couldn’t use the existing playground equipment; she and her colleagues wanted to provide some means for them to have the same fun as other children at Cannonsburg.
The playground is a wonderful addition to the school’s special needs children, said Della Preston, whose son, Nicky, is a second-grader in the program.
It is a place where the children can feel safe and important, she said. “It’s their own special place to play.”