Equality in play for special-needs students

An Atlanta elementary school has a new playground where all students, including students with special needs, can play equally.

Toomer Elementary School officially opened the school’s new inclusive playground this week. The playground, funded largely by a $100,000 grant from Farmers Insurance, serves Toomer as well as the nearby Boys & Girls Club.

The area has a soft, rubbery surface instead of wood chips, so falls are less painful and wheelchairs can roll freely.

There’s a “wee-saw” with four high-backed seats and prominent hand grips, so children with limited mobility can get on and off easily; a merry-go-round with high, undulating plastic sides that make getting on board smoother and flying out in mid-spin harder; and a wall with kaleidoscopes, swirling marbles, and a make-believe store counter.

The set of low monkey bars has a table of spinning rods beneath — like a conveyor belt — so children can lay back and pull themselves along.

“It makes it so there are fewer barriers for kids who may have a need for accommodations,” said kindergarten teacher Emily Max, who won the grant to build the playground.

All Atlanta school playgrounds are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, district spokeswoman Latisha Gray said. Some have features similar to Toomer's. And several public parks, including Piedmont Park and Centennial Olympic Park, have playgrounds designed to be accessible to all children. But Toomer's playground is one of the first school playgrounds in Atlanta Public Schools to include so many elements accessible to all.

Other Atlanta elementary schools have received new playgrounds in recent years too. After a 2014 report found that nine elementary schools — most in south Atlanta — did not have playgrounds, Atlanta Public Schools added playgrounds to all the schools using money collected by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

On a recent warm fall day, Max watched as kindergartners swarmed across the new playground and the old one, which still stands nearby. There was nothing wrong with the old playground, with its wood-chip-cushioned ground, bright red slides and faux rock-climbing walls, she said.

But the new playground makes it easier for children of all abilities to play together, she said.

“It helps kids get along,” she said.