Special Education Support Unit

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About 4 years ago, a need to provide a safe, soft fall and weatherproof playground area for the Special Education Support Unit students of Westport High School was identified. Chrissy Jones found out how the project came to fruition from Head Teacher of Special Education, Greg Ferrett.


What is the Special Education Support Unit at Westport High? 

Our Special Education Unit at Westport High caters for approximately 47 students with mild to severe intellectual, physical and emotional disabilities across five classes. We have recently been fortunate to have had modifications made to the Support Unit playground area that have been several years in the making, but the result has certainly been worth the wait.

How did the playground concept come about originally?

The original idea was developed over 4 years ago, when a group of our committed Support Unit Staff, comprising School Learning Support Officers Kaye Negus and Wendy Carter, along with Teachers Bernard Browne and Lucas Tierney, began looking at ways to improve our existing playground layout for our students with very high support needs.

This group of students, who are unable to safely access other areas within the school, were being denied the same opportunities as their peers as a result of their individual circumstances. Most of their time was being spent within the same area of the school, while other students moved between classes throughout the day.

This was the start of a long period of discussion and planning. While the result of the work recently completed looks relatively straightforward, almost underwhelming, the journey to this point has been the total opposite. Our original ideas were aimed at developing a more sensory rich environment for the students to access during the two break times across the day.

You conducted many trials and researched lots of products to get where you are today. What are some of the avenues you went down?

We had trialled custom built surfaces upon which were attached various textures and surfaces for students to touch. These were positioned within the Support Unit playground. While these were successful to some degree, they were not built to withstand the weather and soon became unusable.

When we researched the availability of plastic pre-made replacements, we found that they were either not age appropriate, or their cost was far beyond the reaches of our budget. We then started down the track of fundraising, which was a painfully slow and time consuming process that had some results initially, but were not easily sustained.

Along the way, plans took a turn in a different direction. Tell us about that …

For the staff working with these students, it was slowly becoming evident that what our students wanted to do the most was to have the choice to move beyond their classroom to the outdoor environment. After all, Westport High School is in a unique educational position in Australia surrounded by a floral diversity of rainforest, where sightings of koalas, gliders, banded rail birds, wallabies and kangaroo are not uncommon.

It was from here that our aim became clear. We wanted to provide students with the opportunity to access more of their school environment, to move beyond the confines of their classroom. At the same time, however, we had to ensure that students were able to do so safely, and that staff were able to exercise their duty of care. To do this, we envisioned the construction of an outdoor learning area for our high needs students that adjoined their current classroom, enabling students to move between the indoor and outdoor environments throughout the day both safely and easily.

The School P & C have been a great help with the project. What did they do?

In 2009 we approached the school P&C, to whom we pitched our idea. The P&C members, in particular Robyn Bereicua, Donene Tunbridge and Jenny Ward, had always been strong advocates for the Support Unit and had been investigating ways to get improved facilities in place for the students for many years.

This dedicated group of people did not hesitate to support our cause, even though it took more than two years to get to the point of being ready for the construction work to begin.

Why did it take so long to get the construction of the project started?

The reason for this was simple. We wanted to do this right for the students. It needed to be safe, secure and as weatherproof as possible. If at the end of the day the project was not functional, then we would have achieved nothing.

The final design was at least version five. As we thought we were ready to obtain quotes, staff would approach me and say: “I have been thinking a bit more about the outdoor area …” and we would rethink the whole design again.

The playground is fantastic. Who were contracted to carry out the job, and what do the kids think of it?

Finally, convinced that we had exhausted all design scenarios, we approached Lou Pieren from SKOPE Commercial Building Group, and Gordon Lloyd from All Play Playground Solutions, who did an excellent job delivering exactly what we had wanted. In no time at all, our existing outdoor roof, after being removed with a crane, was extended and repositioned like a giant Meccano set. New fencing and safety gates were installed, before rubber soft fall was put down where old pavers once lay.

To say that the students are rapt with the end result is an understatement. Our new area has been in use every day. We are extremely fortunate to have such an active and supportive P&C at Westport High School. Since this building work was completed, the P&C has also purchased new outdoor tables and chairs for the Support Unit playground, and we are looking towards our next project.

Thanks Greg.

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