Connecting to nature, especially outdoors, has well-documented benefits to physical and mental health, social well-being, and cognitive development. Unfortunately, most parks and natural spaces do not consider the needs of children with physical and intellectual disabilities and children with different sensory needs. Over the last year, the PPC has led a meaningful, inclusive, and accessible community engagement process to solicit feedback from individuals with disabilities, caregivers, teachers, and dozens of Pittsburgh-based organizations serving children with disabilities on the design of a welcoming and accessible trail and outdoor classroom space at the Frick Environmental Center.
This space is currently inaccessible and unreachable for wheelchair users and others with mobility challenges. The feedback collected during the community engagement process has been synthesized and incorporated into the design of an Outdoor Sensory Classroom and Nature Play Trail, which will become a first-of-its kind space in a public park in Pittsburgh. Encompassing 3 acres immediately adjacent to the Frick Environmental Center, the site will feature an accessible 1/3-mile trail that will wind through the woodlands, discovery stations along the way that encourage visitors to pause and participate in activities that promote nature-based learning and engage the senses. Gathering spots will provide visitors to the site with the opportunity to rest, reflect, and reap the benefits of time outdoors.
Some organizations that have participated in the public engagement process, including Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, Friendship Circle, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, and many others expressed that their organizations are eager to take advantage of this site and organize formal visits for the youth they serve.
The site will allow the PPC to forge partnerships with new organizations and schools and develop new environmental education programs that consider the needs of learners with exceptionalities and disabilities. The project's design and permitting process is expected to be finished by October 2023. Fundraising for the construction, long-term care, and programming for the space is ongoing, with construction scheduled to begin in early 2024.