“I’m a race car driver!” shouted one little boy as he explored the features of the Early Learning Center’s new playground.

“He hopped into the high back harness swing because he thought it looked like a really cool race car versus being designed to support a child with physical disabilities,” said Karen McClure-Richard, Director of Pine Tree Society’s preschool for children with special needs based in Auburn.

The new playground features equipment sized and rated for ages two to six and designed to help kids grow, develop and build confidence.

“The entire playground has been renovated and designed to spark imagination and encourage freedom to try new things. A lot of our kiddos live in apartment buildings with no access to the outdoors,” Karen said. “Their only time outside is when they’re with us and the playground is a safe space where they can feel free to run, climb, explore, take risks, get fresh air and exercise.”

The Early Learning Center’s new accessible playground offers a variety of climbing structures, swings and other features for students to build skills and gain confidence.

The swing set has toddler swings, belt swings and a high back harness swing for kids who are learning to hold themselves up. The teeter totter seats are styled like saddles with stirrups and a handle, making it safe for kids of all abilities. The climbing structure has three slides, and includes a climbing wall, a tunnel, steps and a steering wheel providing children with the chance to work on reciprocal movement as they play.

“Reciprocal movement is important because our brain needs to work left-to-right when reading,” Karen explained. “In order for kids to learn that skill, they need to be able to shift focus from one side of their body to the other. For example, many kids use their right hand when something is on theirright side, then shift to their left hand for their left side. To develop their brain for reading and writing, we need to teach kids how to cross their body to get things versus switching hands. It’s really all connected.”

The new balance beam is placed just six inches off the ground. When kids learn to hold their balance, it helps build core strength. It also helps them gain confidence and trust.

“The balance beam is purposefully low to the ground so they will try and take that risk,” Karen said. “Taking small risks helps build confidence and gives kids a chance to learn from mistakes and problem solve.”

The playground also gives students the chance to practice taking turns and being patient, which helps with social skills as well as emotional development and regulation.

In addition to adding new equipment and doubling the space in size, new ADA compliant mulch provides a soft surface beneath the play sets and a grassy area brings a natural setting with a clear view to the brook behind the building. The grassy area has a natural wood seating area and will become home to a sand box, mud kitchen, water table and play house.

“For being in the middle of the city, we are really providing a true nature experience. The brook is gorgeous and we see herons, ducks and lots of wildlife. It’s a really sweet little spot where we can watch the seasons change,” said Karen. “We’re extending the classroom outdoors as much as possible by holding snack time, doing art projects and bringing our books outside.”

This fall, kids will rake leaves and, in the winter, they’ll snowshoe, sled and build snow castles. “Our mud kitchen will be a snow kitchen for the winter,” concluded Karen. “Maybe that area becomes a pizza store or a flower shop. It can be whatever we want it to be.”

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