INTERACTIVE PLAYGROUND FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN DESIGNED BY UTECH STUDENTS Students of UTECH’s Caribbean School of Architecture gave a presentation showcasing their conceptual designs for an interactive playground and garden for the School for Therapy Education and Parenting of Children with Multiple Disabilities (STEP) Centre on January 24. The function was hosted by the Jamaica Institute of Architects at the PCJ Auditorium in New Kingston. Established in 1994, the STEP Centre has been operating out of the St. Margaret’s Church Hall in Liguanea. However, the Hall could not adequately accommodate the students, many of whom have complex learning and developmental challenges. These include cerebral palsy, global developmental delay and various genetic syndromes. The STEP Centre is currently one of the few facilities in Jamaica that offers physical, art, speech and language therapy as part of its daily curriculum. To date, the Digicel Foundation has invested over $28 million to construct a new school building for the Centre, the groundbreaking ceremony for which was held last March. “We believe that every child has a right to a good education and special needs education is an area that we are committed to bring to the forefront of the public’s mind. The STEP Centre is very close to our hearts as it is the first special needs school the Foundation has fully funded. The second is NAZ Children’s Centre in Montego Bay” noted Samantha Chantrelle, Executive Director of the Digicel Foundation. The new STEP Centre building is designed by renowned architect Douglas Stiebel. However, the playground and garden project is being supervised by visiting lecturer, Mark Martin who has previously taught at the Graduate School of Design at Florida International University in Miami. He is also the president of Gardenism, a private design practice. Martin currently lectures at UTECH’s Caribbean School of Architecture teaching a course titled Introduction to Landscape Architecture. As part of this course, students are engaged in a real life project where they can use the knowledge and techniques learned. Martin’s class was chosen to design an interactive, user friendly, educational play area and garden for STEP because the project goes beyond typical architecture to include the design of outdoor environments. “We were very pleased when it was enthusiastically endorsed by Mark Martin and his class,” noted Hilary Sherlock, Principal of STEP. “The design options the students developed exceeded my expectations and I know that there is something for each of our children to enjoy. For our school community we regard it as recognition of our very special children and their need for creative, functional and beautiful spaces.” According to Martin, the most important part of the design is the flooring. It must be both soft to protect against falls and non-toxic. The flooring must be able to withstand being outdoors without getting mold. “I did not want this playground to look as if it was designed for disabled students,” noted Martin. “The level of movement for many students was extremely limited and thus we had to find ways of creating positive educational stimuli. Apart from the five senses that we take for granted, we then add vestibular which is a sense of balance and spatial orientation and proprioceptive which detects the motion of body and limbs.” While describing the aesthetics of the proposed play areas, Martin highlighted some of the more innovating and interesting proposed concepts. These included a two- wheelchair carousel that is operated by hand; an interactive floor that resembles a piano and makes sounds when touched; walls that hold plants and herbs, and interactive game wall as well as on that will have movable magnetic pieces; a train that holds the wheel chairs and moves and make sounds like a choo choo train and a short tunnel depicting the stars and heavens. The new school will be located on Tremaine Road in Kingston and will be able to comfortably accommodate up to 30 students. The STEP Centre continues to produce greeting cards and notelets for every occasion in aid of the continued development of their facilities. The school also welcomes financial and other assistance. Visit their website to view card designs, programmes and contact information. www.thestepcentre.com.