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Victoria Felt, 9, learns how to use the new digger toy with help from Clinical Instructor Carly Popovich in the Birchtree Center's new outdoor play area. The school serves students with autism ages 3-21 year-round. (Gretyl Macalaster)

Unique play area designed for autistic students

NEWINGTON - To a typical child, the play area behind the Birchtree Center may not look like much, but the small enclosure with water tables, a playhouse and a giant sandbox is perfect for the students with autism served by the center.

A $15,000 grant from the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Eastern New England and a $3,500 grant from Citizens Private Bank and Trust, trustee of the Mary Louise Billings Trust, helped make the project possible. The brainstorming and creativity of staff helped bring it to life, and the play area was officially opened to students on Friday.

An employee focus group developed ideas about what equipment would work best for students with autism ranging in age from 3 to 21, who attend The Birchtree Center year-round.

'Typical children can learn a lot of play skills from watching other kids. Our kids may need more intensive instruction to learn those skills,' Jessica Files Squier, director of development and community relations for the center, said.

Once ideas were developed, staff worked before school, after school and on weekends to make them reality.

A play house and open play area allows Birchtree's younger students to practice play skills such as 'pretend play' and sharing toys with their peers; tricycles and other outdoor toys encourage active play; a sandbox, digger toy and water table offer therapeutic multi-sensory experiences and older students can strengthen their motor skills and practice group play using the play area's 'fun hoop.'

'We're very grateful to these generous foundations and volunteers for helping our students with autism get the regular exercise they need,' said Sandra Pierce-Jordan, Birchtree's acting executive director. 'It makes an enormous difference to our students' health, fitness and learning.'

The Birchtree Center is a nonprofit, year-round, day school founded in 2001 with a mission to improve the quality of life for children and youth with autism and their families. The school also offers an outreach program to provide consultation, training, direct services and support for students, families, schools and community agencies to help students with autism.

Teams of experienced autism professionals help students develop the communication, social, behavioral, academic and life skills necessary for full and productive lives in their homes, families, local schools, and communities.

Pierce-Jordan said the school's students do not benefit from too much stimulus, and a playground that a typical child might find engaging could be overwhelming for a child with autism.

'Some of the kids just like to run around and move,' Pierce-Jordan said. 'This is a really safe area and they can come here run and just move.'

Playing in a sandbox, and not eating the sand, can be difficult for some children, and even more so for some children with autism who are particularly sensitive to different textures. Having space for them to practice sandbox skills, which a parent can then use at their neighborhood playground, is an example of how every moment at Birchtree is a teachable one.

'There are parents who say they can't believe their son is playing in a sandbox,' Pierce-Jordan said.

In addition to finishing the outdoor play area, the two grants will also fund additions to the center's sensory room, two treadmills for their indoor gymnasium, and window shades for classrooms overlooking the playground.

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