If a child were to crawl through the tan discover cave on the playground at Ella Schorlemmer Elementary School, that child might consider its interior the perfect spot to sit and chat with a friend.

Or perhaps that child would prefer to climb over the cave before running off to spin a rain wheel during recess.

All that is possible for any child in new playground equipment being installed at all 14 Victoria school district elementary campuses in time for the school year.

The playgrounds will help children with autism and sensory needs play alongside their classmates in a more inclusive atmosphere.

“These playgrounds will address so many learning opportunities outside the classroom and really help children with sensory needs be comfortable at a playground,” said April Nunley, the autism grant coordinator for the district.

Each elementary campus will receive four pieces of playground equipment designed for children with sensory needs but available for all children to play in. The new equipment is made possible through the Services to Students with Autism grant from the Texas Education Agency the district received during the 2018-2019 school year.

The grant provides startup funding for innovative school-level models of instruction that address the educational needs of students with autism.

The district had about 181 elementary-aged students with autism at the end of the 2018-19 school year, Nunley said, but that number does not include students with sensory needs, such as children with attention deficit disorders.

In addition to the playgrounds, the grant has also provided sensory paths inside each elementary campus, a summer program for students with communication disorders and a Mobile Sensory Motor Unit, said Shawna Currie, district spokeswoman.

Each project helps to promote inclusive play and learning, Nunley said. The four pieces include a crawl and climb cave; a merry-go-round with seating that allows children to spin themselves with a wheel or be spun by other children; a plastic rain wheel; and plastic bongos.

The new playground equipment will be included in the established play area at each campus.

“These projects meet their (students with autism) needs so they can stay with their peer group,” Nunley said. “The whole idea is that many students can stay with other kids academically, but other barriers may become a problem, and so we’re trying to address those barriers.”

Some difficulties students with special needs may have include social delays, communication delays, behavioral issues and sensory needs.

A playground, though, allows for social skills, such as sharing, taking turns and communication outside the structured environment of the classroom, Nunley said.

Principal Elizabeth Chandler said she looks forward to the opportunity for all students to help each those with social and emotional needs through playground interaction.

“Sometimes our special needs students have trouble playing on the bigger playground, and they can’t interact with their peers. This will definitely help the children socially,” Chandler said.

So far, the playgrounds at Schorlemmer, Mission Valley and Vickers elementary schools have been installed, while installation for the remaining campuses is scheduled in August.

Elementary campuses that did not already have a concrete path to the outside play areas were also installed through the grant, Nunley said.

The district also is expecting to bring on additional support staff for classrooms, social and emotional learning curriculum, optional seating for children, and sensory areas and boxes for children, Nunley said.

“We have a lot coming in. That grant will go a long way for our children,” she said.

Brittney Graf, whose 6-year-old son has sensory needs, said she is happy to hear about the new playground equipment. Her son, Kyle, will be a student at Dudley Elementary this fall, and Kyle has sensitivity to noises and physical contact.

The new inclusive playground may help Kyle build camaraderie with more classmates, she said.

“I think it will incorporate more time he wants to share with other kids and possibly replace some of those sensory issues he has,” Graf, 29, said. “I think this will help him grow out of some of his sensitivities – a mom can be hopeful.”

Amber Aldaco reports on education for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at aaldaco@vicad.com or 361-580-6303.

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Education Reporter

Amber Aldaco is the education reporter at the Victoria Advocate. She's covered various events in the Crossroads including a zoo rescue, a biker funeral and a state meeting with the governor. She enjoys singing with her significant other.

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