It wasn’t long ago when playgrounds across Wellesley were off limits, surrounded by orange plastic fencing or other materials aimed at preventing kids from spreading COVID-19 on swings, slides, and in sandboxes. Now with concerns lessened about the disease being transmitted via surfaces, playgrounds are back in action, and not only that, Wellesley has new equipment at Warren Park that is all about being touched and encouraging sensory play.
“It seemed like it belonged there the whole time,” Natural Resources Commission (NRC) Director Brandon Schmitt told the Wellesley Community Preservation Committee (CPC) during a meeting in December, shortly after the equipment at the 90 Washington St., playground outside the Recreation Center was installed.
The colorful new Cozy Cocoon and Music Store equipment are the result of efforts by Jake Merritt, a Wellesley High School senior,, and Alex Battle Abdelal, a senior at Noble and Greenough School.
The friends came to be interested in making a Wellesley playground sensory-friendly through different paths.
Merritt had begun volunteering with a program in Boston called Teens Engaged as Mentors that provides social outings and leadership opportunities for kids. “Seeing the positive effects of that program and the community that was built around it inspired me to begin looking at how I could help kids with autism within my own community,” he says.
Abdelal traces his interest in the subject a few years back when he was performing in the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” in which the lead character is boy on the autism spectrum.
“Because of this, I had been immersed in research related to autism studies for months,” he says. “The play—and researching for my performance in it—showed me the need for inclusive spaces that honor neurodiversity.
“[Jake and I] found ourselves talking about the subject and learning about it together, and we came across this rather new invention of ‘sensory-friendly parks,'” Abdelal says.
Their research found that the nearest sensory-friendly playground to Wellesley was more than an hour away.
“Alex and I saw an opportunity to provide a more inclusive experience to not just people in Wellesley, but hopefully for people in surrounding towns hoping to find more inclusive playgrounds,” Merritt says.
The young men initially planned to raise $10K and add the playground equipment as a gift to the town. During the planning process to raise funds, they came in contact with the NRC’s Schmitt, who they say took a great interest in the project and helped them learn about ways to get town funding.
The process took about a year, between finding a company to make and install the equipment, and presenting before numerous town boards and committees, including the NRC, Design Review Board and CPC.
The proposal was refined as a result of the CPC meeting. “Some of the parts were taken away, some were added, and the budget was adjusted to $12,000,” Merritt says.
Cozy Cocoon and Music Store
Taking a closer look at the new equipment, the Cozy Cocoon serves a couple of functions, according to Merritt.
“First of all, it is a place a child might go if over-stimulated. Sometimes it helps to escape the hustle and bustle of the playground, and the Cozy Cocoon helps with that,” he says. “Second, the Cocoon is lined with a number of different textures. This offers an opportunity for tactical exploration, which is good for all kids, not just those on the Autism Spectrum.”
The Cozy Cocoon complements the other new equipment, dubbed the Music Store, which adds a splash of color to the otherwise subdued tones of the Warren Park playground. It encourages tactile exploration, with a variety of instruments, including drums and bells. “The Music Store incorporates another sense, our sense of hearing, into the playground experience through the various instruments.,” Merritt says.
Merritt and Abdelal have talked about expanding the project to other Wellesley playgrounds, including at elementary schools, but there are no formal plans. For now though, Wellesley is fortunate to have some of the only outdoor equipment of its kind in the area.