Playgrounds and school yards are by nature a place for fun, games and laughter. But often they are not made with the needs of the children in mind. This year, a unique type of playground was created at a school in the Bohnice district of Prague, which is meant to aid teachers in their quest to improve their students’ speaking skills and overcome certain impairements. In this Czech Life, we visit the Don Bosco school and talk to the people who helped create the first specialized speech therapy playground.
Both a primary and a boarding school, Don Bosco was created specifically for children that have various types and levels of speaking and language impairments. Teachers of regular classes work closely with speech therapists who work holistically on resolving the problems students have with speaking and understanding speech. For a long time, the Don Bosco school yard was just a grassy patch with little that could entertain the school’s day and boarding students. But earlier this year, the school opened a completely renovated yard with places where students can play, relax and learn. The chief speech therapist at the school, Kateřina Denemarková, told me that the new garden has made a big difference in the day-to-day routine:
“I think it really changed the way things work at the school. It’s really great. You can come out to the garden whenever there is a bit of free time. We have one kindergarten class, and they come here in the mornings to play. And the first two grades go here throughout the day for regular classes. But we also use it for the speech therapy sessions with children.”
The yard, which is officially the very first specialized speech therapy school yard in the Czech Republic, is a product of more than two years of work. To realize this major project, the Don Bosco school sought out support and funding from the Proměny or Changes Foundation, that provides financing for projects that transform public spaces, especially parks and gardens. Petra Hrubošová says that supporting the Don Bosco project is part of their efforts to support the younger generation.
“The projects we’ve supported in the past have shown that the youngest members of our society are most important, and we need to cultivate a positive relationship with the environment in children in order to make cities be comfortable for living. And this is where the idea for a special program called Playful Garden came from. The speech therapy garden Don Bosco is the very first, pilot project of this program.”
The goal of the project was not simply to give the students new swing sets and other equipment, but to create tools that could be used by teachers and therapists and a space where the children would feel comfortable and feel at home. Having invested some two million crowns in the project, the Proměny foundation helped bring together and inspire both the school and its collaborators to create a truly unique place. Petra Hrubošová told me that it was essential for them to bring the whole of the school’s community to work on the project.
“Of course, the biggest input had to come from those that would use it, so we tried to involve the whole school in the process from the very beginning – the teachers, speech therapists and the kids themselves. Then the architect took all of this information and created the overall plan for the garden, and finally the different elements that will be used by teachers and students were created.”
The overall layout and landscaping was done by the garden architect Zdeněk Sendler, while most of the elements used for teaching and play were created by the creative group Strašné Dítě or Enfant Terrible. The group has already helped create a number of playgrounds but each one is unique, as one of the Enfant Terrible members, architect Lenka Klodová, told me.
“Every garden and yard we create is original and is a product of the genius loci of the place and also simply the genius of the group that orders it from us. So communication with them is very important. It is also important for the future use of the garden, so that they can see their own input in the space.”
The school yard has a jungle gym made from ropes and real treat trunks and branches, one which is shaped like letters and another one that uses cut out shapes to teach letters and words, a basketball court and even a set of colorful hammocks for relaxation between classes. But the creators also added elements that teachers could use during class, allowing students not just to have an interactive experience but also to be outside while learning, weather permitting of course. When I visited Don Bosco, Mrs. Denemarková showed me some of those features.
“For classes we use, for example, the two terraces over there, which have rubber covering. We use this place to teach math, right-left orientation, and for development of memory and logical skills. There is a large chess board over there, and a colorful labyrinth, where the kids learn the colors and orientation in space.”
The central element of the playground, and what makes it really distinct, is the so-called “logopedic house”. The house has exercises and games on all four sides and even inside of it, offering children a playful way to practice pronunciation, listening, as well as tactile skills – all of which are important in overcoming speech-related problems. Both Mrs. Denemarková and Mrs. Klodová told their favorite part of the little play house are the big red mouths with little nets behind each one, that gape at the onlookers, creating very real associations for each vowel in the Czech alphabet, which are written next to the oversized lips.
“These big mouths actually show the real positioning of the mouth when one pronounces each of the vowels. The children throw balls into each of the mouths, shape their own lips in the same way and pronounce the vowels, or think of words that start with those letters, or think of words that don’t have those vowels. You can do lots of exercises with that.”
Although the playhouse is the one distinctly speech related feature of the garden, almost everything in the Don Bosco schoolyard helps the children at the school improve their language skills. Mrs. Denemarková says that speech pathology needs to be approached holistically and work on all elements of the child’s development.
“Speech therapy is connected to many things that may not seem important, but all of them related to speaking. When a child goes to a speech therapist because he cannot pronounce the letter ř, it is not enough to just teach the letter. It’s important to get his tongue moving, improve his vocabulary, it’s important if he can move well, how his finger dexterity is developed, his manual dexterity. It’s the whole person, not just the ř.”
I wondered if the technology and interactive tools that are so present our everyday life today have caused the number of children with speech impairments to decrease in the past twenty years. Mrs. Denemarková told it is quite the opposite. Their school, and speech therapists in general, receive more and more students each year. And still, many teachers and parents often confuse speech problems with issues of intelligence, and students who simply need a little help with comprehending and producing language end up in the less challenging, but often dead-end special schools.
“The problem is that parents or caretakers don’t speak as much with the children, they are not read to enough, or sung to enough. Life today is very fast-moving and the models of communication for children are not comprehensible enough and some children are just not absorbing them.“
Since it opened at the end of last school year, the playground seems to have improved both class time and free time for students and teachers at Don Bosco, but there are few schools around the Czech Republic that have had the chance, or the initiative, to transform their school yards to fit their students’ needs. In general, says Petra Hrubošová from Proměny, although communist era playgrounds are disappearing around the country, they are often replaced with identical out-of-the-box recreational equipment that simply does not take into account children’s different needs.
“Spaces for children are not given that much importance here still. Of course new playgrounds and other places for children are being created, but so far they are quite standard and similar to each other. There are few places that help children’s creativity, individuality or communication. It’s done very stereotypically.”
As a privately funded foundation Proměny is doing their best to work with townships, schools and neighborhoods to change green spaces around the Czech Republic. The challenge is often not only to create and implement the projects, but also to change people’s mentality and convince them that their input is essential to changing the space where they and their children live, learn and play.
“The hardest part is always to gain the trust of all the people involved and get them to participate in the projects; Because, in addition to helping change public spaces, our foundation is trying to foster active participation in the transformation of public spaces. There is still a lot of initial mistrust when it comes to changing something here, but we try to convince people that this is an opportunity to have a say in how the space will look and function.”
Another school yard project, this time at kindergarten in the small town of Český Brod, has opened this fall. This space serves almost all the town’s children, since it is used by the kindergarteners, students of the primary art school, the local Scouts group and a parents’ club. Proměny foundation’s Playful Garden program has generated a lot of interest, but there is hope that many more unique and tailor-made playgrounds will pop-up around the Czech Republic in the next few years.
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