Outdoor Play for All: How Sawtooth Elementary is Paving the Way Article

Outdoor Play for All: How Sawtooth Elementary is Paving the Way

Every day, kids at elementary schools across the country hear that familiar bell, beckoning them outside for a much needed break from classroom learning. They grab their jackets and beeline it out the door to run, jump, climb, and play on the playground.

But what happens when play isn’t possible for all children, and instead of playing with their friends, they’re sidelined as observers?

That was the case for a number of children at Sawtooth Elementary School in Twin Falls, Idaho, and their classmates took notice.

Avery, a kindergartener at the time, noticed her friend Zella was not able to play on the playground with her and the other kids. Zella’s wheelchair was difficult to maneuver outside due to uneven ground, and once on the playground there wasn’t much for her to do. The monkey bars, climbing structures, slides, and stairs were outdated and not accessible for her or any of the other wheelchair users at the school.

Avery and her mom, Kimberly Vriesman, brainstormed ways to help Zella and the other students feel more included in outdoor play, but nothing was landing.

“Mom, we just need to get a new playground,” Avery said.

Then a plan was set into motion.

A COMMUNITY UNITED

Kimberly began making calls, asking fellow members of her community to support her and Avery’s idea for a new, more accessible and inclusive playground.

“Every single person and organization said ‘yes, how can we help?’ It was amazing.”

Kimberly rallied support from the Twin Falls Education Foundation, Twin Falls School District, and Sawtooth Elementary PTO to launch a fundraising campaign for the new playground, which quickly gathered speed.

Mickey Combs, Principal at Sawtooth Elementary, was blown away by the community support for the new playground.

“Every single member of our community was invested in making this happen. From the PTO to businesses to retired teachers, parents and students, everyone wanted to make sure we pulled this off.”

With the help of the Twin Falls community and a generous grant from the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation, enough money was raised to break ground on the new playground.

“When we heard about this project, it was a no-brainer for us. As a foundation we want to ensure that outdoor recreation is accessible to all – especially kids,” said Roger Quarles, Executive Director for the JA & Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

A BETTER PLACE TO PLAY

Once construction started, there were a number of issues to address. The bumpy terrain around the school made getting to the playground nearly impossible for some children, so two concrete pathways were installed to ensure comfortable access from the school to the playground. Next, the loose bark was replaced with bonded rubber mulch – cushy enough to protect kids from the usual slips and falls yet firm enough for wheelchairs and walkers to navigate.

The rest of the playground was designed with care and inclusivity, so that children of all ages and abilities can enjoy it. It features ramps, lower access points, rails, and special panels to encourage sensory play.

The completed playground at Sawtooth Elementary School in Twin Falls, ID

One key feature is a slide that allows children to access it from the ground level and pull themselves up by gripping a side rail. There’s also a seated merry-go-round and a bird nest swing that allows multiple children to sit or lay as they swing or stare up at the clouds.

Kids being kids!

To say that Kimberly and Avery are amazed at how their vision came to fruition is an understatement.

“This playground provides EVERY student at Sawtooth an equal opportunity to play and just simply be a child,” said Kimberly. “Watching the children that previously could not even access the equipment, let alone play on it, independently pull themselves up onto the equipment and play side-by-side with their friends is life-changing.”

“What is so beautiful and powerful about this project is the messaging it sends our children and community. It shows them that ALL children matter, and if we look around and see something that isn’t right, we can fix it!”

A BETTER IDAHO

The Sawtooth playground project may have started as a simple way to get more students involved in outdoor play, but it has become a symbol for much more.

“This is the new standard,” said Kimberly. “We need more accessible and inclusive playgrounds throughout Idaho, because physical education and play are such integral learning spaces – for everyone.

Heather Lopez, the Regional Director for CAF-Idaho, has met a few of the students from Sawtooth Elementary, including Zella, who attended a Winter Sports Weekend with CAF last year. This event and others like it are tailored specifically to adaptive athletes, so they can participate in sports and outdoor recreation without limits. Heather visited Sawtooth, and hopes the new playground will motivate others to follow in the school’s footsteps.

Zella playing sled hockey at CAF-Idaho’s Winter Sports Weekend.

“We want Idaho to be a place that’s open and accessible for every person to recreate in, and I think that starts with something as simple as playing on the playground with your friends,” said Heather.

The new playground at Sawtooth Elementary was completed in September of 2023, and according to Principal Mickey, it’s even open to the public when school is not in session.

Playground ribbon cutting ceremony at Sawtooth Elementary School.

“We want people to visit the playground and play play play. That’s what it’s there for,” said Mickey.

As for Kimberly, she plans to continue helping other schools fundraise and install adaptive playgrounds like the one at Sawtooth. She hopes that someday every playground in Idaho will be adaptive and inclusive to all.

Added Kimberly, “This project started because of a conversation between a child and parent, and ended with a fully accessible and inclusive playground being built. How amazing is that?”

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In 2023, we granted $51.7 million to projects and partners whose work sharpens our vision. This was an exemplary giving year for the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. We continue to advance our goals to make Idaho a leading model for innovative learning, a world-class destination for accessible recreation, and the most desirable state for life after the military.