Therapeutic Playground Project

May 2018 Engineering Mission Team in Trujillo, Honduras

The May 2018 engineering missions trip to Trujillo, Honduras.  The team of 12 Lipscomb University students began construction of the Outdoor Therapy Center at Manos Chicas, Corazones Grandes.


Little Hands, Big Hearts (LHBH) is a Christian ministry located in Trujillo, Honduras that primarily serves “special needs” children in an impoverished community. The Republic of Honduras is the second poorest country in Central America (after Haiti). The city of Trujillo is located on the Caribbean coast and remote from the major cities of the country.

LHBH is “dedicated to empowering the indigenous church and sharing the Good News of Jesus with needy children and their families in Honduras.” Specific ministries include a developmental preschool, women’s sewing program, neighborhood children’s Bible hour, health and nutrition outreach, home improvement program, young people’s character-building program, and educational programs with the local churches and schools in the Trujillo area. Short-term visiting mission teams supplement the work and activities of the mission carried out by the Honduran-trained staff of LHBH.

To learn more about the ministry, please have a look at the following social media resources:

Although it is not connected to this project, a website called "Kids Around the World" has a wonderful explanation of the power of childhood play in changing little lives:

There are approximately 2.2 billion children worldwide. Half of the world’s population of children is in poverty—victims of war, natural disasters, injustice, and economic stress. This lack of safety burdens a child with fear and physical and emotional trauma, stunting a child’s ability to learn and grow in confidence. They feel hopelessly trapped within their socioeconomic boundaries, without vision for the future.


In the next decade or two, these children will become political leaders, teachers, law enforcement, or parents. It’s critical to shape them in those early years. Investing in them is investing in the future caretakers of this planet. By providing kids with safe places to explore and healthy meals, we are directly sowing into our future. (10/21/2018)

Developmental Preschool

Image Courtesy of Katie Wilson, DPT

The LHBH Developmental Preschool is the centerpiece of the ministry. This preschool is overseen by a director and three specially-trained teacher/therapists. They presently serve 14 children with disabilities and special needs. These disabilities include cerebral palsy, spina bifada, and hydrocephalus. Ages range from 6 months to 15 years. The teachers prepare and chart progress on an “Individual Educational Plan” (IEP) for each child to maximize their physical, social, and mental development.

The precious children served by the LHBH preschool.

Physical/Occupational Therapy Introduced

LHBH Board Member Katie Wilson, DPT works with a LHBH child.

A group of North American physical and occupational therapists visited LHBH three years ago. A group has returned to work with the teachers and children each year since. They have urged the ministry to initiate physical therapy at an earlier age during infancy rather than wait for the traditional age at which a child enters preschool. LHBH began this effort in 2013 and it has proven most beneficial to those children who started during infancy.

Therapeutic Playground Project

One of the most urgent needs for the LHBH ministry is for the children to continue the muscular and physical development using outdoor play therapy. They have developed a series of activities that are conducted indoors, but find that these need to be complemented by gross motor development activities outside. Whether the child uses a walker, is wheelchair bound, or has other physical disabilities, LHBH wishes to provide play therapy in a park playground on the grounds of the Little Hands, Big Hearts mission.

What follows is a description of a multiyear project, from 2016-2019, to build a therapy playground at the LHBH ministry in Trujillo, Honduras.  

Vision Statement

To design and construct a safe outdoor area that allows and encourages the children of LHBH to engage in therapeutic play.

Phase I:  Research

An Assessment and Research Team (ART) met in Honduras during June 28-July 3, 2016. They accomplished the following:

  • Visited one of the only special education centers in the country with a playground.
  • Visited the homes of a few children with special needs to understand their situation and how LHBH works with the children and their families.
  • Toured the LHBH property.
  • Inspected the potential playground sites and selected the best site.
  • Determined what play activities are needed to best fulfill the needs of the educational and therapy staff.

Members of the 2016 Assessment and Research Team in front of the selected playground site.  Click on image to access the image gallery.

Members of ART compiled a list of LHBH children that included physical activities deemed beneficial for their physical development. That list revealed 5 basic activities that would enable every child to experience at least 3 play options on the playground:

  • Touch Sensory: Touch is an important sensory experience for the visually impaired. The cause and effect experience is also important for children with mental disabilities. "Deep pressure" is an important sensory effect for children with autism.
  • Swinging: An important vestibular/balance activity.
  • Biking: An ability to move around on an adaptive tricycle.
  • Spinning: Another valuable vestibular/balance activity.
  • Music Sensory

The team also felt the following areas are important to include in the playground:

  • Tunnels: This can serve as an area for overstimulated children to "escape" and rest before re-engaging.
  • Balance: Balance play activities are also very important for the vestibular system and require children to develop motor skills as they consider where to place their feet. Examples include a balance beam or "lily pads"
  • "Loose pieces": This is a newer concept in playground design. Not everything needs to be permanently fixed to the ground, and children can learn a lot of tactile and spatial skills by moving and manipulating objects.

Phase II: Preparation

Conceptual Design

Rod Knipper, principal architect at KDA Architecture, was the design lead for the project.  In November 2016, he created a concept of the playground as shown below.

Knipper described the concept as follows:

The setting for the play space is rich with potential to excite, encourage, and challenge the children; adding fun, exploration, and adventure to the hard work of therapy.


There will be two primary areas – The Treehouse and The Valley. The Treehouse is perched in the grand old mango trees above The Valley inviting the children into adventure and delight. As suspension bridge leads to the Treehouse and a long ramp and stairs access The Valley. Play therapy and elements of exploration are integrated in and between these two main activity areas.


Providing children effective therapy and play opportunities in a beautiful natural setting will inspire, excite, and challenge. This adventure playground will be far more effective than the most elaborate and expensive artificial synthetic manufactured play equipment.

Preliminary Analysis

During the 2016-2017 academic year, a senior design team at Lipscomb University began preliminary designs for some of the play equipment, the bridge, and the treehouse.

Site Survey

During Spring Break 2017, a team from Lipscomb University's Peugeot Center for Engineering Service in Developing Communities traveled to Trujillo.  They completed a professional-quality engineering survey of the playground site and cleaned the area of debris and leaves.

Site Preparation

In May 2017, another team from Lipscomb's Peugeot Center traveled to Trujillo.  They oversaw operations to level and prepare the playground site for construction.  This included:

  • pruning and/or removal of specific trees,
  • purchase and delivery of fill dirt to level the ravine, and
  • construction of key retaining walls and stairs to allow access while preventing erosion.

Click on the images below to see more!

Therapeutic Equipment Design

Starting Fall semester of 2017, Joseph Tipton began teaching a section ENGR-1113-04L "Introduction to Engineering" that was redesigned to focus on humanitarian engineering.  The focus of the laboratory was to design appropriate playground equipment using the Engineering4Change "Human Centered Design" methodology.  For the next 3 years, freshmen mechanical engineering students in this lab were able to design possible therapy station solutions and pitch them to the playground project team.  Students then had the opportunity to travel to Trujillo and work with Hondurans to bring some of their designs into existence.

Phase III:  Construction

Rotary International Grant

In 2018, the Yakima, WA Rotary Club worked with LHBH to secure a $35,000 grant from Rotary International to support the therapeutic playground project.

Yakima Herald Article, 25 July 2018

Lipscomb Missions, May 2018 & March 2019

Lipscomb University engineering students traveled to Trujillo in May 2018 and again in March 2019 to engage in site preparation and therapy station construction activities.

Yakima, WA Rotary

Through 2018-2019 Rod Knipper worked through the Yakima, WA Rotary club to design and construct the bridge and treehouse.

Panorama Informativo Interview with Rod Knipper

Playground Dedication Ceremony

In October 2019, alumna Ruth Steele ('18) represented Lipscomb University at the Outdoor Therapy Center dedication ceremony.  The Trujillo community gathered to celebrate the official opening of the playground.  Click on the thumbnails below to see images of the dedication as well as the completed therapy playground.

Future Trips

Lipscomb University aims to continue trips to support the work at Little Hands, Big Hearts through the Peugeot Center.  The next trip is schedule for March 13-20, 2020.  Contact Joseph Tipton if you are interested in learning more!

The Peugeot Center Trips Trailer on Vimeo

UE Engineering OPTIONS Program (June 11-12, 2014)

Engineering OPTIONS is a summer camp for high school women who are rising sophomores, juniors, or seniors, sponsored by the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Evansville. The week-long program mixes fun with work and learning about four different engineering disciplines: Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering.

In 2014, I represented the Mechanical Engineering discipline.  I chose an energy efficiency project from the Concord Consortium ( that would introduce the students to concepts such as heat transfer, solar heating, energy vs. power, and energy efficiency.  We combined hands-on experimentation, instrumentation, and computer simulation.

It was quite a challenge to implement, but I strove to create a meaningful introduction to engineering experiment and design rather than a simpler build-this-and-see-what-happens approach.  I was impressed with the students academic background and enthusiasm.  Hopefully, there are some future mechanical engineers in the making!

UE Engineering Explorer Post (2012 - 2014)

In October of 2012, I became a co-leader for an Engineering Explorers post at UE.  The local Boy Scouts of America (BSA) office administers the Learning for Life Corporation Explorers program.  The program was open to local high school students and meet at UE on Monday nights every third week.  We offered hands-on activities that introduced the students to career options in engineering.

G.O. Ministries, Santiago, Dominican Republic (January 2-9, 2010)

In my first year as a professor at UE, I was also able to participate in a service learning experience.  Through the senior capstone design program in mechanical engineering, I served as the advisor for a team of students who were tasked with the design of a solar thermal water heater.  The customer is/was G.O. Ministries, a Christian non­profit that supports pastors and Christian workers in the Dominican Republic  (http://www.go­  A dormitory is under construction to house visiting volunteer teams with the ministry.  Hot water delivery is difficult due to electricity costs and power outages.  The ministry requested a solar powered water heater to alleviate these concerns.  The ministry is also interested in the idea of constructing and selling solar water heaters in the Dominican Republic as a source of income.

The goal of the trip was to allow the engineering team to construct and test a prototype "in the field" and use the data to validate their physics ­based math model.  Both engineering and business teams also participated in G.O. Ministries activities including feeding homeless at a city dump and assisting with the construction of ministry buildings.

While in Evansville, the engineering team worked on a plethora of engineering challenges:

  • Designing, testing, and evaluating solar collector and absorber designs while...
  • Utilizing materials that were cheap and readily available in the Dominican Republic
  • Making the design passive so that no electricity is needed for operation
  • Ensuring the design could be constructed using technical skill levels available in the Dominican Republic
  • Creating a math model that could be used to scale the system for use in different sized buildings
  • Establishing a plan to integrate the solar water heater into the ministry's current plumbing system

This was a wonderful opportunity for the students since it fulfilled the UE mission so well in the form of senior capstone design, cross-discipline interaction, global learning, and service learning.  It is my prayer that the students were challenged and inspired by the trip to use their skills and knowledge as engineers to serve humanity on a global scale.

ME team members included Andrew Rister, Bonnie Koopmann, Slavic Velet, and Matt Kauffman.  Business students included Margaret Work, Meredith Woehler, Jose Bertolo Arraez, and Luis David Sena.  Faculty advisers were John Layer, LaShone Gibson, and myself.

By constructing the test apparatus on site, the team was able to determine best construction practices and then document these for the customer (G.O. Ministries).

As a design requirement, the students were challenged to source only locally available supplies.

The finished test apparatus worked so well that the ministry asked to keep it for actual use!

Rancho Ebenezer, Honduras, Central America (2003-2005)

My passion for teaching and love of space intersected beautifully at an orphanage outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2003. I spent the first 6 months of the year as a volunteer with the Baxter Bible College in Tegucigalpa. During my stay, I had the opportunity to visit friends from my Costa Rican language school who had moved to a children's home just outside the city.

About 20 children attended an elementary/middle school operated by the orphanage ministry, and I offered to help in any way possible. I soon found myself invited to teach space science activities on Friday afternoons to the middle school students. I will forever be captivated by the beautiful setting of a little school filled with bright, inquisitive minds, unhindered by the world around and happy to spend an hour focused on the heavens above.

Exploring the principles of water filtration aboard the International Space Station

Constructing an egg drop device on the same principles as the Mars Pathfinder Lander 

Learning how scientists interpret terrain on Mars from satellite photography

Launching a baking soda and vinegar rocket

Showing off Indo-China Tectite... glassy rocks created from meteor impacts. These were graciously donated by Dr. Larry Taylor, a planetary geologist at UT.

Enacting a scale model of the solar system. Can you spot pluto?