Learning Environments: Introduction
The Bridge School's physical environment is designed to meet the academic, social, communication, mobility, sensory, and assistive technology needs of our students. Importantly, Bridge School's learning environments have been engineered to accommodate each student's ability to access and navigate within the various activity areas of the classroom, garden, playground, and shared public school campus. This results in a climate that is rich with opportunities for social engagement and academic success. Our location on a public school campus creates inclusion opportunities for students to learn together and to develop friendships.
Our preschool and elementary classrooms serve up to fourteen students each school year. Setting up the classroom environment requires careful planning and organization to meet the needs of the group as well as for individual children. Learning centers, bulletin board displays, computer set-ups and instructional materials are arranged to welcome the students and to support a functional learning environment. Our classroom arrangements create an atmosphere that fosters the inquisitive nature of our students, supports their attention and learning needs during small group sessions and independent tasks. Furniture and large instructional materials are arranged to allow ample space for the students to move freely in their walkers and wheelchairs.
The classrooms are designed to accommodate a variety of activities throughout the day while supporting engagement, independence, exploration, learning and play. Clearly defined spaces within the classroom set the stage for specific kinds of interactions among students and teachers. Students quickly learn where they will gather for a large group meeting, where to expect small group instruction and where their independent learning stations are located.
Movable furniture helps us create multifunctional learning spaces so the classroom can quickly be changed from group work to individual learning. In order to meet the diverse needs of our students, the physical classroom arrangement takes into account a range of environmental considerations such as lighting, noise level, visual and auditory input and accessibility of materials. Computer workstations provide each student with his or her own personal space and are individually designed to maximize their independent access to curricular activities, materials and technologies. The classroom layout is arranged to accommodate each student's ability to access and navigate within the various activity areas. Pathways are broad to facilitate ease of movement in support walkers and wheelchairs. Learning centers and student workstations are located around the sides of the room.
Garden and Deck
The Bridge School garden was funded by the parent group to celebrate the lives of all the children who have been a part of The Bridge School family. Their efforts transformed an unattractive, unusable area into beautiful and functional multisensory, multidimensional instructional and recreational area.
Considerations in planning for the garden included:
- Accessibility - children had to be able to access the pathways and the planting areas
- Multisensory - plants and garden installations had to provide an environment rich in color, texture, sound and fragrance
- Interactivity - garden installations had to be engaging and interactive
- Functionality - the garden area had to lend itself to multiple uses for instruction and recreation
All the criteria were met and the results exceeded expectations. The garden is an integral part of the instructional setting at The Bridge School.Garden Infrastructure
Instructional and Recreational Areas
As the garden grew and matured, it and the deck evolved into expanded instructional and recreational areas for the classrooms.
The curriculum in our preschool class is delivered, in part, through thematic units. The Garden is a perfect place to move from a classroom experience to the reality of the process of planting.
When we were looking to add more interactive features to the garden, Steve Tornallyay submitted some ideas for us to consider and organized a group of volunteers to transform the designs into reality.
The proposal was to place a switch-activated small fan inside of a planter bowl which, when activated, would blow a whirlwind of leaves. An adjustable fan would allow for a range of wind speeds.
The proposal called for a living willow tunnel that would provide a calm place to hear the wind. Placing small bells on the structure would create a musical sound as children pass through the tunnel in their walkers or wheelchairs.
The proposal was to secure rain sticks to a tree branch and when the students rotated the rain sticks they would create a soft sound.
Steve proposed a Bamboo Chime Tree that would have bamboo pipes handing from the tree branches. The pipes would creat gentle tones from the wind or when moved by the students. Different lengths of pipes would create different tone.
The proposal included a Sound Board made of the sound board from an upright piano. The sound board could be played with fingers, palms or mallets. The size of the sound board makes it possible for multiple players.
North and Crocker Schools
The Bridge School shares a campus with North Hillsborough Elementary and Crocker Middle School, two public schools in the Hillsborough City School District. This physical placement provides significant benefit to the educational program for students from all three campuses and provides our staff the opportunity to see our students in an inclusive environment. The Bridge School education teams and teachers from North and Crocker plan for our students' participation in appropriate grade-level general education classroom activities for selected subject areas, recess, and school-wide events. A Bridge School staff member accompanies each student during all general education experiences and provides ongoing support to address student goals and maximize each student's ability to participate, interact with peers and learn curricular content. The Bridge staff member takes careful notice of what accommodations and modifications are necessary to ensure active participation and brings that information back to the educational team for future planning. Our students' participation in grade-appropriate general education classrooms increases opportunities for educational involvement and social development for Bridge School students and for the students at North and Crocker.
We use an adaptation of the Participation Model (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2006) as a guide when determining expected levels of participation for each student in the general education environment. Educational teams assess and monitor the levels of support required, including accommodations, material adaptations, and interaction strategies that maximize their participation in general education classrooms. This is an important step in our process of identifying the necessary accommodations and supports that will enable our students to be successful when they transition back to the public school setting.
A shared playground offers multiple opportunities for North and Bridge students to engage socially. North School students from preschool through 5th grade use the playground for structured physical education activities and for free play at recess. Some Bridge School students are involved in the structured physical education program and all Bridge students interact with North School students during recess periods.
For many years the playground was inaccessible to Bridge School students. The ground covering was tanbark that reached a depth of 19 inches. Wheel chairs and walkers sank up to their hubs and quickly came to a grinding halt in this medium. There were two accessible swings on the playground, but staff members would have to pick up the students and carry them to the swings. A merry-go-round was another feature that our students enjoyed, but without assistance, they could not access the structure.
In 2009 - 2010, Bridge and North School parents redesigned the playground and with funds that had been set aside for this project and funding from The Bridge School Parent Fund, the site was renovated with careful consideration as to accessibility. The result of this collaborative effort was a more accessible playground with more options for all children to enjoy.
Community Based Experiences
It is our expectation that every one our students will live, play and ultimately work in diverse environments within the larger community. It is there they will participate in everyday activities throughout life. Community-based/field experiences take place in environments where our students are able to generalize knowledge and skills they have learned at school. Our students interact with community members and gain experience across essential domains of communication, mobility, recreation and life skills, while practicing the use of assistive technologies in diverse settings.
Our curricular content guides the selection of community/field experiences. Carefully selected experiences provide opportunities to expand our curriculum and to assist students in developing their individual talents, interests and abilities. These experiences often are culminating events of a particular curricular unit. When given opportunities to apply what they have learned in real life settings where such skills are commonly used, their learning takes on new and heightened meaning. Our students gain experience using their communication skills and AAC systems in a variety of contexts, including direct interactions with unfamiliar listeners. They can explore new possibilities to practice using their mobility devices such as support walkers and power wheelchairs. They learn to utilize public recreation options, plan personal leisure time and participate in recreational activities. In turn, the community benefits from interactions with Bridge School students as they demonstrate the competency and value that each student uniquely brings to society.
Our list of field trip experiences changes from year to year, but some of our favorites include:
Going to the Grocery Store
In the thematic unit, students discuss what they want to make and create a shopping list including how much each item is going to cost. They go to the store and purchase the items which requires them to interact with the clerk at the checkout and to count their change. When they return to The Bridge School, they 'cook' the meal and enjoy the food they prepared as well as understand the process. This gives them practice for real life situations and an appreciation of what is involved in preparing a meal.
Shopping for Toys for Tots at the Mall
This is an annual experience in conjunction with the fire department's Toys for Tots Holiday Drive. Our students sell cupcakes or popcorn during recess to earn money to buy the toys for children in need. One of the highlights of this adventure is taking public transportation to the mall. Once inside, they select the toys they want to donate to the Holiday Drive, pay for them and then the best part - The FIREMEN come to The Bridge School to get the toys and to let the students try everything on the fire engine. Doesn't get any better than this.
This is everyone's all time favorite field trip. Everyone gets in their walkers, straps on their skates and away they go! Parents and siblings come along on this experience. This leads to family conversations about what happened and what fun they had.
The Bay Area has an excellent public transportation system and when we have an outing that is near a station, we like to use the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). The students get the experience of traveling on a subway, learning how to get their tickets and pass through the turn-styles and get on the train. Many of our graduates use BART on a regular basis to get to and from different activities.
This hands-on science museum provides our students with the opportunity to engage in activities designed to explore scientific principles.
There are numerous mobile experiences that offer our students more time and more interaction with the exhibits. The traveling Insect Zoo keepers bring the insects to The Bridge School and introduce them to our students. The students can see them up close, hold them if they like, and the docent provides information about each one.
Aquarium on Wheels
This is another example of an experience that is available for our students within our classrooms. The docents bring aquatic to the school for the children to see, touch and learn more information about them. When we go to the aquarium, often these experiences are not afforded our students due to crowding or accessibility. These mobile experiences are a wonderful way to give our students the opportunity to interact with the various species.