Case Study: Signal Centers Therapeutic Playground for the Arts

Inclusive Early Childhood Mission

Signal Centers' mission is to foster lifelong independence through services that focus on disabilities, early childhood education, and self-sufficiency. Services to children are the cornerstone of Signal Centers, and the Chattanooga Children's Program serves children with and without disabilities in a quality, inclusive, early childhood program.

The nonprofit agency dreamed for years of a new outdoor play space that would meet the diverse needs of their student population and would fulfill their mission of inclusion. During the early planning phase, the school clearly defined the needs they had within the outdoor space prior to new construction, such as traffic problems, difficult access to and from the school, inadequate space, and equipment that was not accessible to the majority of the students they served.

Signal-Centers-2.jpg#asset:9529A Unique Project Purpose

The new outdoor play environment was intentionally designed to extend learning outdoors and features a tricycle path, amphitheater, covered pavilion, sand play area, music and art area, outdoor sound system with 24 speakers, and a fully inclusive play structure with multiple dramatic play areas. Within the space, commonly referred to as the "Friends Playground," staff regularly observe children move from parallel play to interacting with others - building important first friendships.

Multigenerational, Sensory Rich Design

Another primary goal of the playground was to provide rich nature and sensory experiences for children of all abilities, as well as a place where multigenerational activities could take place between the children and adults that benefit from Signal Centers' services. "We feel strongly that stimulates the mind, strengthens the body, and helps to develop a sense  of wonder and imagination," expressed Donna McConnico, Chief Executive Officer of Signal Centers. 

With over 1,000 plants of more than 50 varieties, the play environment infuses nature as part of the play experience to further promote inclusion, learning, discovery, and physical activity. Children can enter the play environment through a vine tunnel covered with Carolina jasmine or via a hillside slide.

National Recognition

Designated as a NatureGrounds® National Demonstration Site and an Inclusive Play National Demonstration Site, the play environment serves as a leadership model that promotes play value and implements research-based best practices of playground naturalization and inclusion. 

The native plantings create a sensory rich environment full of color, texture, and scents, offer daily hands-on learning opportunities to reinforce science, math, and language concepts. Students with special needs often receive integrated therapy outdoors, as they engage in natural daily routines and motivating lay experiences with their friends.

Robust Stakeholder Support

Signal-Centers-4.jpg#asset:9530Community engagement was a critical component of the success of the project from planning, designing, and funding to building the playground. Over $215,000 was raised by Friends of Special Children, a nonprofit that supports the work of Signal Centers, to fund the project.

 Local Foundations awarded grants, and local businesses, community groups, and individual donors underwrote specific parts of the project. A.D. Engineering, the Affinity Group, PlayCore, and Chattanooga State Community College helped bring the expertise needed to bring the school's vision to life, while the architect firm, garden center, and other vendors and volunteers helped with donations. Nearly 65 volunteers participated in a "Day of Caring" event to install the recommend plant material chosen by the local landscape architects that helped design the green space. 

"The community investment in this project created more than a playground - it's also an outdoor classroom, a nature center, a performing arts theatre, a picnic area, a music and art studio, a science lab, and a space for physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Together, we built a place where children develop reading, math, and science skills, and perhaps most importantly, we built a place where children will learn to share and take turns, and develop skills to navigate relationships and accept each other, regardless of the differences they may have," shared McConnico.

Programming to Maximize Usage

Today, the playground offers a world-class experience for children in the early childhood program, and also provides the perfect space for Signal Centers to have family gatherings, celebrations, and a variety of special events. The outdoor inclusive play environment has hosted trick-or-treating events, talent shows, dances, cooking classes, storytelling, and even a high school graduation. Chatter Camp, a summer camp dedicated to helping children that use augmentative communication of voice output systems communicate with their peers, begins each day on the playground with songs and activities for all campers.

"Children learn most through play, and when they have a rich play environment they are able to develop in a number of different ways, ways that strengthen the mind, body, and soul."

- Donna, Chief Executive Officer, Signal Centers

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