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Church Completes Playground For Unique School


October 1, 2020

Natasha Dunagan

Teacher, Lauren York watches over her students in toddler cars in the newly renovated accessible playground at St. Paul's United Methodist Church.

At St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Shawnee, the children in the Early Foundations Program and Pup Pack Daycare have a new and improved accessible playground and new ways to play.

The playground opened on Monday, Sept. 28, after months of planning and being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fenced-in area has a new layered-turf surface, a large tarp to protect from the sun, musical playground instruments, and a "spinner," which is like a small, stand-up merry-go-round. Everything is accessible to walkers, wheelchairs, and toddler-sized cars. St. Paul's Pastor, Rev. Dr. Tiffany Nagel-Monroe, said they had pebbles within a barrier before, which wasn't working for children with special needs.

"It doesn't matter if you have a ramp into a playground, you're not going to be able to maneuver a walker on gravel, pebbles, or wood chips or anything like that," said Nagel-Monroe.

The opening of their new playground was the first objective after they started both programs in the fall of last year through a collaboration with several partners in the community. The Early Foundations Program is an early intervention school for children between 18 months and two years who are on the Autism Spectrum. Pup Pack Daycare offers childcare for newborns to age 3, at a reduced rate to Shawnee Public School teachers. It is planned for both sets of toddlers to interact with each other in community time.

"So the Early Foundations kids may come in, and they'll go to class for a couple of days and have one-on-one time with their educators," said Nagel-Monroe. "Then, the other days, they'll have an integrated classroom structure to where they're learning with children who are neuro-typical. So, all of the children are learning how to be in community with one another. How to socialize, how to have relationships."

Nagel-Monroe said one of their collaborative partners is the Oklahoma Autism Center, and she is still learning from them.

"They have discovered through studies that the early intervention interaction is so pivotal to what the student can do when they get into secondary education and high school," she said. "It sets them up for success even beyond that because they're learning these skills at such an early age. So, they're finding ways to communicate, even it's just to point, it's developing early cognitive abilities at a very young age."

The Early Foundations Program in Shawnee is the first of its kind in this area. Before, parents of children on the spectrum would have to go to Oklahoma City or Tulsa for resources in early childhood intervention.

"There was nothing for children and families on the spectrum," Nagel-Monroe said. "So, support systems for parents, educational tools, classes, educators who understood being on the spectrum. We have those, but just nothing that could get to the root of it at an early age. So, parents would have to move out of Shawnee to get resources."

The idea began with a Shawnee teacher attending a training session where they learned about this program that had started at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City. She told former Shawnee Superintendent, Marilyn Bradford, who attends St. Paul's, and Bradford asked Nagel-Monroe if she would be interested in a site visit. After being inspired there, the community collaboration was formed to bring the program to Shawnee. It includes St. Paul's, Shawnee Public Schools, Citizen Pottawatomie Nation, the Oklahoma Autism Center, Sooner Start, and the Avedis Foundation.

"It was really cool to watch all of these different women (directors) come together and say, 'What can we do together?'" said Nagel-Monroe. " ... We bring all of this, and how can we actually come together and show people that, 'No, we can work together'? We launched it last fall, and it's been an incredible success."

Nagel-Monroe has written a couple of grants, and everyone in the collaborative group donates as needed.

The construction of the playground itself, which took place last week, was a learning experience for the students in the program. A unit on construction was taught using hands-on stations in the classroom, and they were able to watch the work taking place outside their window.

Natasha Dunagan

Three children play on the "spinner," which was recommended for solo play for those on the Autism Spectrum. The new accessible playground at St. Paul's United Methodist Church includes a spongy "turf" surface, a large tarp, a spinner, and three musical instruments. The church houses the Early Foundation Program, for toddlers on the Autism Spectrum, and the Pup Pack Daycare.

"They watched the process happen, and they were just enamored by it," said Nagel-Monroe. "It was really cool because even the transitional construction process of renovating the playground was an education tool. It was a learning experience. How cool to be that close through the window. It was just so neat to see how excited those kids were."

By Tuesday, Nagel-Monroe had already received phone calls asking about their playground. She also got a heartfelt letter from the parent of a special needs child.

"We received a letter from a parent in the community last week who had expressed to us just a profound emotional gratitude saying that they had a son who has different needs and was always excluded from parks and play areas because he couldn't get into them," she said.

"That was something that the father had expressed. He never got to play. He had to sit on the sidelines, watching the other kids play. There's no quicker way to realize something's different about you than not even being allowed in the circle of the playground. Now, it's leveling the field."

Those interested in enrolling their children in the Early Foundations Program or the Pup Pack Daycare should call Shawnee Public Schools central office at 405-273-0653.


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