- Associated Press - Sunday, June 10, 2018

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) - Kennedy Elementary School students swarmed around the new gaga ball pit, a feature that has been all the rage lately on playgrounds.

Inside the octagonal wooden structure, children swatted a ball back and forth, trying not to get hit below the waist. Students moved in and out of the pit through an opening in the wall, made wide enough so students in wheelchairs or with reduced mobility could easily join the game.

“It’s been a boon for recess,” Principal Donna Loewen told The Telegraph Herald . “I’ve just been saying it’s a magnet for kids.”

The gaga ball pit is one of a series of planned improvements to Dubuque Community School District elementary playgrounds aimed at making them more accessible to children who have differing levels of abilities.

Other tri-state area school officials also say they have made or are considering making accessibility upgrades to their playgrounds.

“This affords every student an even playing field for getting involved,” Loewen said.

The new gaga pit at Kennedy is the work of Luke Morarend, an eighth-grader at Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School who spearheaded the effort as part of his Eagle Scout project.

As Morarend was pitching the project to school officials, Bill Burkhart, district buildings and grounds manager, challenged him to design the gaga pit with inclusivity in mind.

“I think that it allows everyone in the community to enjoy the project - people living around Kennedy, students,” Morarend said. “I just like the idea of it being very inclusive.”

The gaga pit has been popular with all students at the school, Loewen said.

“It’s highly captivating,” she said.

Third-grader Kaitlyn Hagerty said she enjoys the new pit, as do her classmates.

“You can exercise by running around hitting the ball, moving your arms,” she said.

Hagerty has a prosthetic leg and said the accessibility of the structure makes it easier for her to get in and out quickly during play.

“It’s easier to get in because if it wasn’t all the way open, you’d have to slow down and hop over it,” she said.

In the coming years, Dubuque school district officials plan to add inclusive playground equipment at elementary schools across the district.

“Ten years from now, our playgrounds are going to look a lot different,” Burkhart said.

District staff members are starting out at Kennedy, where sidewalk and concrete improvements will be made this summer to help the public access the play area at the school.

In the next school year, district officials will add playground equipment that is accessible to students with different ability levels, Burkhart said.

Initial plans call for a wheelchair-accessible glider and a slide with rollers that provides sensory benefits, as well as other equipment for students with sensory needs.

After completing the Kennedy project, district staff will add inclusive playground equipment at Eisenhower Elementary School. Then they will continue adding equipment around the district as old pieces of playground equipment reach the end of their lives.

“We have kids with these needs at all of our schools, so yeah, I want to get all of our schools eventually,” Burkhart said.

Currently, the preschool playgrounds at district elementary schools have equipment that is easily accessible to students in that age group, Burkhart said. However, district officials want to add inclusive options at general elementary playgrounds so they can be accessible to all ages, he said.

The playground work builds on district efforts over the years to make buildings more accessible, Burkhart said.

“The district has always been proactive to improve access, and we’re adding onto that,” he said.

The Dubuque project is among a few efforts at tri-state area schools that have been completed or are in the works to make playgrounds more inclusive.

At Winskill Elementary School in Lancaster, Wisconsin, parent and community fundraising allowed officials to install a wheelchair-accessible glider, a wheelchair swing, seven sensory panels and a monkey-bar-like structure that allows students to lie on their backs and pull themselves along a series of metal bars.

“(We’re) really trying to make our building accessible and our playground accessible to everybody, and the kids agree that everybody deserves to play at recess,” said Missy Sperle, a second-grade teacher who helped spearhead the project. “They shouldn’t be limited in what they can do.”

At Fennimore Elementary school in Wisconsin, school officials have started to explore the possibility of adding accessible playground equipment and have reached out to companies to see what might be possible, Principal Carmen Burkum said.

“It would mean that all of our students are able to play together and not feel like they were left out,” she said.


Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com

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