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A Dream Pediatric Playground Opens at Natchaug

November 17, 2020

Marisol Caraballo almost cried when she saw the new playground at Natchaug Hospital.

“We all work together at Natchaug to make the kids happy,” said Caraballo. “This has been such a beautiful experience.”

The playground, completed in early October, was inspired by Caraballo, a Natchaug employee. She was one of four winners of Hartford HealthCare’s EMMie (Every Moment Matters) Awards, named after the Emmy television award and given to HHC employees who go above and beyond to do special things for patients.

HHC showed its appreciation by donating $25,000 to a healthcare charity of each winner’s choice. HHC also allocated $250,000 to jumpstart a project designed to improve patient experience – hence the playground.

HHC’s $25,000 donation in her honor went to autism due to her first-hand experience with her grandson.

“I chose the playground so that the kids can have something to enjoy when they are here,” Caraballo said.

“Research shows that every one of us has the opportunity to make any number of up to 20,000 moments matter in a day,” said Gerard Lupacchino, HHC senior vice president of Human Experience.  “Those moments make a real difference in our patients’ and colleagues’ lives, and we can choose to make them matter. The EMMie awards allowed us to have our peers and colleagues identify those people who made extraordinary efforts to make every moment matter, and share some generosity to reinforce that recognition.”

The playground opened in early October and has received rave reviews from the child and adolescent patients in the inpatient unit.

Natchaug Special Education teacher Rebecca Cronin said the playground is a “game-changer” and that her students cannot resist playing on the new structure.

“For these kids to have movement opportunity is critical,” she said. “So many struggle with having too much energy or being lethargic and movement helps to regulate that.”

The playground was custom-designed for Natchaug by M.E. O’Brien & Sons and has multiple features to create an inclusive, therapeutic experience. It has shaded areas, an obstacle course, a ground-level scavenger hunt, a bluestone patio with seating and shade, a quiet “buddy” space for those who may need to talk with a friend or doctor, an 8-foot-by-8-foot sandbox and a drop shot ball system. The surface is made of poured-in-place rubber that offers a soft textural experience and is safe and accessible for all users.

The sandbox, which offers a natural sensory experience, is helpful for patients on the autism spectrum

“There are certain kids that are attracted and calmed by using sand,” said Cronin. “It’s a really powerful coping strategy.”

The obstacle course was intentionally designed to help build neural pathways and develop route-planning — or figuring out how to get from one side of the course to the other.

“Graduated challenges keep kids interacted a lot more than traditional structures you might see that they can master in a short period of time,” said Andrew Kimball, park and playground consultant with M.E. O’Brien & Sons. “It will help Natchaug over a much longer period of time because the users might take a little bit longer to conquer it.”

Other EMMie winner projects  include a music therapy program at Hartford Hospital, a “fresh air” patient lounge at the Hospital of Central Connecticut behavioral health unit and improvements to the ICU at MidState Medical Center.