Fred Taylor stood snapping photos while his 13-year-old son Logan painted a colorful circlular design at a creative arts station at one end of the new playground at Giant Steps, a school for students on the autism spectrum.
The playground was funded and built by the St. Louis Rams football team as part of an annual community outreach program. The team was represented at the playground opening by its costumed mascot, Rampage.
(See related on Patch: St. Louis Rams Build Playground in Maplewood)
Logan, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, will be starting his third year at Giant Steps tomorrow morning.
"If this place didn't exist," Taylor started to say, pausing for a moment to compose himself before continuing. "It's the only place where a kid like him can fit in. This is really the only school that understands these kids."
He said that at the school's old location in a commercial area of Maryland Heights, the children couldn't go outside. The school moved to Maplewood this year.
"They get that built-up, pent-up energy," Taylor explained. "They're not angry, but they have to do something with that energy and this playground gives them a place to go."
Another parent, Kristie VanLuven, attended the open house with her son Ben.
"We're brand new this year," she said. "When we visited, as we were leaving, Ben said that he felt like the kids were like him."
Like Taylor, VanLuven's voice was also thick with emotion as she spoke about the school.
"We've always known he needed something different. I'm so excited about the program here. They really get it. It's such a community. I love it already, it's so supportive."
Giant Steps executive director Betty Berger said, "I think you could talk to almost any parent and they might bring you to tears.
Laura Schellenberg designed the playground based on the special needs of children on the autism spectrum. "There are a lot of rocking, spinning, full-body activities," she said.
The occupational therapy rooms inside the school are also designed to address the sensory needs of children with autism.
Occupational therapist Brandee Zahner described how activities like the ball pit satistfied the need for physical sensation that helps some children to calm down and become more focused on school tasks.
At other times, a child might need to get on the treadmill and run off excess energy. Zahner said that the new building, which is in Concordia Lutheran Church’s former school, has more space for equipment.
"We even found equipment we didn't know we had in the attic during the move," she said. "Because of space limitations there, we had to pick and choose."
The children themselves didn't seem concerned about the therapeutic nature of the activities on this particular morning. They were fascinated by the novelty of having a Ram in a football uniform as a playmate and eager to try out the new slides and climbing structures.
"They've never had a playground," said Giant Steps teacher Karen Hizer. "They took to it like a fish to water."