HUNTSVILLE — Imagine being forced to sit at recess and watch as your fellow students play while you’re unable to join them. 

The goal of inclusion — the idea that no child should be unable to interact and play with their peers — is what is driving a Huntsville teacher and her coworkers to undertake a project that they hope will raise enough funds for a special needs playground at their school.

Abby Young is a special education teacher at Huntsville Elementary School who is spearheading efforts to construct an all-inclusive playground at the school. It’s sorely needed, she says, and would benefit many students.

“As of right now, for our students that are in wheelchairs or have low motor skills, they cannot play on anything,” Young said. “There is not a single piece of playground equipment at Huntsville Elementary School that would allow any of our students to play with their non-disabled peers.”

The school’s playground consists of a wooden fort with stairs, obviously not conducive to play for students with disabilities, standard swings without harnesses, and other older equipment that cannot be accessed by special needs children, even with teacher support.

“Unfortunately, we have students that are in the middle school and high school that have went through elementary school without the opportunity to play on ‘typical’ playground equipment,” Young said.

The idea for an all-inclusive playground came about during a summer school session. Teachers and parents were discussing the playground and its shortcomings for special needs students. An idea was born and the school’s principal, Lisa Hamilton, was fully supportive.

“A few teachers approached Mrs. Hamilton and she was on board to do anything and everything needed to achieve the goal of all of our students playing together each day,” Young said. “The idea took off from there, and the support and outreach we have had this far from teachers, staff at Scott County Schools, and families of students with and without disabilities have reassured the fact that we are on the right track to a playground that would be life-changing for a lot of students at Huntsville Elementary.”

A Growing Need

Huntsville Elementary has three self-contained classrooms for students with special needs. Those classrooms average around 10 students each year. Within them, there are about 20 students who are not able to play on the playground independently, Young said. Additionally, there are 10-to-20 students, on average, at the middle school who could utilize the playground.

Research has shown that there are social and emotional benefits to interaction between students with disabilities and students without. Recess, when the pencils and learning are set aside for a few minutes so that students can play, is the perfect time for that interaction. But when some students are limited on the playground, that interaction does not occur.

“We have many students who are not able to access typical playground equipment due to limitations with fine motor skills, gross motor skills and sensory delays,” Young said.

The result can be heartbreaking. 

“Right now, our students that are unable to play usually sit by the teachers and watch the other students play,” Young said. “They can walk around the playground or play in other means besides use the current playground materials. But many students with disabilities cannot fully participate with their peers once they start playing on the playground structures. This is when a student with a disability is potentially left behind by their peers.” 

Young talks specifically about a student who is confined to a wheelchair. The student has a “very strong desire” to make friends with other students, Young said, but is limited to playing in the dirt with whichever students will join in because the playground is inaccessible.

Setting A Goal

Playgrounds are not cheap, particularly when they’re designed to accommodate all children, regardless of their ability. Teachers at Huntsville Elementary have set a fundraising goal of $150,000. Early on, reaction from the community has been positive.

“We have been very fortunate so far in the support we have received,” Young said. “We have community individuals and businesses willing to assist with our initiative. We are hoping to gain additional support from local and regional community members once the word of our playground initiative becomes known.” 

Teachers plan to conduct fundraisers in addition to accepting donations. Any funds raised beyond the $150,000 goal will be used for additional playground accessories, such as swings with support harnesses, seesaws with support harnesses and roundabouts with harnesses, all of which is accessible for students with and without disabilities in order to allow all students to play together.

A GoFundMe page will be set up in the days ahead, allowing members of the community to donate funds to the project. Donations can also be made at Huntsville Elementary School by simply dropping the money off at the school office. 

On Tuesday, a groundbreaking ceremony will be held at the school, which will serve as a kickoff for the fundraising efforts. The event will begin at 5 p.m.

Persons with questions about how they can contribute can contact the school at 663-2520 for more information.