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Dobbs Ferry’s Middle School Creates a Special Playground for Special Ed Students

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December 4, 2022

By Jeff Wilson–

In a show of commitment to all its students, administrators at Dobbs Ferry Middle School held a ribbon-cutting on December 1st, celebrating the opening of a unique new playground for its special-needs class. Presiding over the event was Middle School Principal Patrick Mussolini and Special Education Director Jean Gismervik; in attendance were special education administrators, staff members from the special ed “life skills” class, their eight students, and the children’s families.

Following speeches by the two emcees, with Gismervik thanking colleagues by name for their input on the project, the ribbon was cut, whereupon the children charged into the pristine playground (with parents in tow) to claim a swing or a spot on the merry-go-round. All were soon engaged.

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In a conversation with The Hudson Independent before the event, Gismervik discussed the two-year evolution of the facility. Every year, she explained, the staff assesses the children’s needs and how to meet them. A couple of years ago they noticed that the children who would be coming up from elementary school were needier, in terms of physical therapy, than their predecessors had been. These were students whose development was appropriate for a playground. “It would be hard for these students to just sit at a table during recess and talk about their day,” Gismervik said. “Having a playground would give them an opportunity to develop mentally, to be the kids that they are, to integrate their physical therapy … into a natural play scenario.”

To make that vision a reality, Gismervik and the staff had to determine where to site the playground, what kind of equipment was needed, how to make it suitable for the entire school population and, more importantly, for special ed classes down the road. Even color was important: the space had to have blue, one of the Dobbs Ferry school colors, to make the children feel a part of the school community at large. “It was built with the intention of providing a social net for our life skills class, said Gismervik, “but the great thing about this is that every year new students will be going through this program. And so this is something that’s going to stand the test of time… in providing a place for our students to feel at home.”

Amid the din of children at play, Assistant Director of Special Education Shari Kaplan provided more detail. Mobility issues were considered in the design: wheelchair-bound students, for example, will find the equipment to be suitable in height, easy to get on and off of and placed so it is readily visible. And the key ingredient may be the cushiony matting underfoot. “The surface is ideal,” Kaplan enthused, referring to the spongy, fall-friendly “floor” constructed of textured rubber covering a layer of foam. In terms of both safety and esthetics, the matting is a far cry from the wood chips found in most playgrounds.

As for the facility’s cost, Kaplan confessed that the price tag was over $100,000. The financing, she said, came from an ARP611 grant (allocated under the federal American Rescue Plan for special education) and the general fund. COVID funds were also used.

And what do the kids think of their new play space? Classroom teacher Courtney Esannason recounted some of her students’ reactions. Although many of them are nonverbal, she said, one called the park “amazing” and another “asked if he can come back to the swing everyday.”

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