SALT LAKE CITY — Tucked away in a corner of the play area at Utah's Hogle Zoo is a curiously decorated playground wall. The wall is covered with hundreds of mosaic tiles, with swirling lines and a base that looks like a water spring.
The materials for the tiles range from cheap marbles, plastic gems and beads to 22-karat gold pieces, diamond-cut glass and Italian millefiori glass.
"I’ve personally never worked with that before because I couldn’t afford it," said artist Roger Whiting, laughing.
The zoo's new sensory wall was created by Whiting and kids from Matt's Place, a day treatment facility in Centerville for children and people who struggle with autism or developmental delays.
"We worked through the entire creative process together," Whiting said. "Everything except for the grouting and the final installation was done by them."
Whiting and zoo administration gathered in the playground Friday to unveil the sensory wall, titled "Hope Springs."
Children at the playground began examining the mosaic wall after the unveiling, running their hands and fingers over the colorful kaleidoscopic tiles without prompting.
"Did you see the little mouse in his cheese cave?" Whiting asked, pointing to a tucked away corner of the sensory wall.
Ten-year-old Aubree Callister scrambled over. She was one of the children who helped create the sensory wall.
"Awesome," she said, touching a collection of yellow tiles around a little mouse figurine.
The sensory wall is away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the playground, giving kids a calm place to play without the risk of sensory overload.
"I’ve been staring at this thing several times a week," said Elise Plumley, the zoo's special needs and refugee programs coordinator. "Every time, I notice different pieces about it that I hadn’t quite caught onto before."
It’s important for me that youth who are in situations where they’re at a disadvantage can see that they can have an impact on their environment. The world isn’t just to serve them. They’re also able to serve others and make a difference in their world.
–Roger Whiting, artist
Plumley and Whiting visited Matt's Place once a week for several months last year, teaching kids about the animals and asking them what they wanted to use to make the wall.
"I gave a certain percentage of the budget to each child and they were able to decide what materials they would buy as the actual tiles for the project," Whiting said.
When the time came to place the tiles on the wall, Whiting taught himself how to cast in fiberglass and took a mold of the rock wall back to the facility. The kids put over 30 different types of tiles in place themselves, along with clay animals they made.
"It’s important for me that youth who are in situations where they’re at a disadvantage can see that they can have an impact on their environment," Whiting said. "The world isn’t just to serve them. They’re also able to serve others and make a difference in their world."
With more than 1.2 million visitors to the zoo each year, Plumley said the sensory wall is built to last.
"School field trip kids are not gentle," she said. "So we wanted to make sure that it would be really durable."
The project was funded through a grant from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.
"Sometimes you think that these types of projects will appeal only to people with disabilities. That’s so not the case. It appeals to everybody," Plumley said.
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