SYRACUSE In 2007, Jack Denny was a student at Jowonio, an internationally-recognized preschool known for its integrated curriculum for children of all abilities, including those with special needs. Denny, who has autism, walked up to the school’s nature path one day and announced that he wanted a tree house that would be accessible to all of his friends, including those in wheelchairs. And that was the beginning of the Play Perch project. On May 10, after six years of preparations and nine months of hard work by Syracuse University architecture students, the school officially opened the Denny Family Play Perch for its students.
The Play Perch is similar to a tree house- it’s built around a tree and sits about five feet up from the ground. It’s built with a ramp that allows students in wheelchairs to climb the tree and play in the tree house with their friends. The Play Perch is much more than just a piece of playground equipment, however. Teachers in the school plan to use it as an outdoor classroom to teach about sounds and changes in the environment and the animals and plants in and around the nature trail.
“It is fun, but it’s equally as educational as it is fun,” said Kristen Antonacci, who works in the fund development office and serves as the building manager at Jowonio. “And it provides that ultimate inclusiveness. We do have children in wheelchairs and we do have children who have walkers. This is completely accessible to everyone and will provide educational opportunities for our kids who may not have been able to experience anything like this otherwise. We will have children in wheelchairs who will be able to say, ‘I climbed a tree.’”
Jack’s parents, Todd and Lisa Denny, of Baldwinsville, are active with the Building Bridges Foundation, which is a nationwide group that works to raise money and awareness about autism. After Jack first had the idea, the school began reaching out and found many people who were interested in donating time, money and supplies to the project, but the school couldn’t quite put it all together on its own.