The Next Wave of Recess Renaissance

When Tom Buckley, a wheelchair user, was a third grader, recess time gave him two choices.


“In the winter, I drive in a circle,” Tom recalls. “In the fall and spring, I drive in an oval.”


All that changed for Tom when he arrived at the Cotting School in Lexington, which serves students with learning and communication disabilities, physical challenges and complex medical conditions and specializes in offering differentiated programming and curricula for students to learn and apply their skills. At Cotting, one of 80 member schools of the Massachusetts Association of 766-Approved Private Schools (maaps) serving students with special needs, Tom first got to experience Adaptive Physical Education.


The program transformed recess for Tom and for his fellow students. It provides physical fitness, group activities, and adaptive versions of team sports like basketball and soccer. These opportunities sometimes get short shrift for students with disabilities and learning differences, because such an intense focus is required on support for academic success.


No matter how substantial their physical disabilities, “all of our students take laps around our building on our accessible paths every school day,” says Bridget Irish, Chief Operating Officer at Cotting School. “This is in part because it is hard work for families to get them bundled up and out in the fresh air regularly, and in part because so many communities still lack basic accessibility. At Cotting they consistently – at all times of the year – get out on sidewalks that are plowed and have appropriate curb cuts.”


With more and more academic research documenting how critical recess and physical activity are for students of all kinds, it’s sometimes said that America is in the midst of “a Recess Renaissance.” One key driver for this recommitment to recess was an American Academy of Pediatrics 2013 policy statement that “Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.” The Centers for Disease Control has also noted the “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement.”


In my 30 years as the Executive Director of maaps, I have witnessed the continued growth and advancement of the expertise of our member schools. Students come from around the nation and around the world to benefit from the highly specialized education and treatment offered by our members. This advancement is evident even in the exciting, new adaptive play and playgrounds at maaps schools across Greater Boston, tailored to their students’ unique abilities and learning differences.


Adaptive Playgrounds for Physical Disabilities

The Kennedy Day School in Brighton, part of Franciscan Children’s that serves students with severe medical complexities and cognitive disabilities, is situated on a 10-acre campus surrounded by beautiful oak trees that provides the foundation for a new multi-functional play space called New Balance Park, which will be completed this summer. The park will incorporate handicap-accessible benches and picnic tables, adaptive swing sets with back supports and chest harnesses, musical instrument installations and a mobility courtyard supporting physical and occupational therapy for balance and coordination. For students preferring meditative quiet during their outdoor time, the park also includes a therapeutic courtyard with low-stimulation play items, and a peace garden with flowers and shading trees.


A multi-functional park at the Kennedy Day School includes handicap-accessible benches and picnic tables, adaptive swing sets with chest harnesses, and a mobility courtyard for physical and occupational therapy.


“There are no better childhood memories than flying through the air on a swing at the playground, eyes closed and grinning into the breeze,” says Bonnie Paulino, Program Director at the Kennedy Day School. “Every child deserves that sense of freedom and elation. We are most excited about the addition of swings that allow students with customized seating system wheelchairs, even motorized power wheelchairs, to simply roll up onto a secure platform and safely swing through the air, fully secure and supported.’’


At The Guild for Human Services in Concord, the challenge of designing an accessible, inclusive playground was not only accommodating differences in physical ability but age as well. The Guild, which serves individuals with intellectual disabilities, autism and behavioral/mental health challenges, operates a school and residential program for 85 youth ages 6-22 and a residential program for 55 adults.


“An accessible, inclusive playground is not simply a place where children can enjoy themselves, it is an essential tool to practice physical skills, resiliency, cooperation, social interaction, and many other competencies that have lifelong impact,” says Guild CEO Amy C. Sousa.


While The Guild has long offered a modern gym and fitness room, it lacked an outdoor playground. When the Guild moved from Waltham to Concord in November 2016, the new space and a $50,000 grant from the Belmont Savings Bank Foundation created the opportunity for building a playground to meet Guild students’ and resident’s needs.


Two Guild occupational therapists, Nicole Anulewicz and Lindsay Kirk, took the lead on choosing everything from swings accommodating users in wheelchairs to climbing structures low and safe enough for individuals with motor-planning constraints. One extra-wide slide provides horizontal sensory rollers to help users orient themselves, and a spinner allows younger, smaller or less physically able users to face inward and feel supported.

“I think everyone has enjoyed the playground,” Kirk says. “Many times, our students can’t verbally tell us that they enjoy it, but they are telling us by the fact that they don’t want to leave.”

Outdoor Education for Socio-Emotional Learning


Not every school has the means or space to build an adaptive playground for its students. In the heart of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, COMPASS has little available outdoor space for its students, referred from 19 school districts, who have a range of emotional, behavioral, and learning challenges. Groups normally use a nearby park or gymnasium, and COMPASS’ Outdoor Education program provides more opportunities for students to create meaningful connections with nature.


COMPASS’s partnership with the Hockomock YMCA has allowed their students to experience team-building physical exercises such as a ropes course.


One of COMPASS’ solutions has been partnering with community organizations with outdoor education programs. They formed a partnership with AMC Youth Opportunities to offer multi-day excursions to places like Mount Cardigan in Alexandria, N.H., for canoeing, camping, and hiking. They also partnered with the Hockomock YMCA to offer a ropes course and other team-building physical exercises.

“A lot of our students cannot afford the transportation or gear to explore beyond their neighborhoods, so our Outdoor Education Program provides them with that opportunity,’’ says Jason Gutu, COMPASS’ Outdoor Education Coordinator. “This provides important support for our students’ physical and psychological development.”

All of COMPASS’ students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or one is being developed with them. To sustain emotional, behavioral, and academic gains over summer vacation. COMPASS provides a 6-week Summer School program through which about 50 K-12 students receive academic enrichment, clinical support, and the opportunity to go on nature field trips. The Outdoor Education Program incorporates trauma-oriented practices and a “challenge by choice” approach as part of exploration and self-discovery. Coming often from inner-city neighborhoods and histories of abuse and neglect, Gutu says, students may experience anxiety or discomfort with an experience like “walking over uneven and dirt-filled terrain.” COMPASS staff are mindful of supporting students through those challenges.

“The priority is joy,” Gutu says, “but getting there involves teaching the skills to access it – skills students can take with them at the end of the day.”

Educators have long recognized that learning extends well beyond the four walls of the classroom. For students with physical disabilities, behavioral and socio-emotional challenges, and learning difficulties, physical education and play spaces are not always fully available at typical public schools. By building accessible play spaces and providing tailored support for time outdoors, maaps member schools offer special education students the opportunity to realize a fully maximized education.


James V. Major retired this month after 30 years leading maaps, the Massachusetts Association of 766-Approved Private Schools (maaps), which was founded in 1975 as a statewide association dedicated to providing educational programs and services to students with special needs. maaps members are approved by the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education under the state’s special education law, Chapter 766. maaps represents 81 member schools serving nearly 8,000 children with special needs including from public school districts in Massachusetts and from other states and countries.

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