An all-access playground 15 years in the making was officially dedicated Thursday at the Early Childhood Center on the campus of Fairfield Warde High School.

The project, which cost about $100,000, expanded an existing play scape and added new playing features and equipment. Superintendent of Schools David Title said the project was two-fold -- to make it safer and more accessible to children with disabilities, and to expand its size. He said the previous surface was uneven and covered in wood chips.

"This is a project that began long before I got here by a passionate group of parents," said Kristen Bruno, coordinator for Early Childhood Special Education for the Fairfield public schools, just before First Selectman Michael Tetreau and Title cut the red ribbon to the delight of the dozens of children, who counted down, "three, two, one!" before the giant scissors chopped the ribbon in half.

They were joined by parents, teachers, town government representatives, and education officials, who gathered on the newly installed rubberized surface of the playground, which doubled in size. It also got a number of new features. The playground, which actually opened shortly after Thanksgiving, has a jungle gym that includes side-by-side slides, a picnic table and climbing elements, which are suitable for all children including those with special needs.

There is also a new swing set, a car wash, gas station area and other features and equipment, which Bruno said can be used for recreation or for therapy.

"This playground now can be used for individual therapies: speech, occupational and physical ... It levels the playing field so all preschoolers can have access to the playground. Studies show the earlier a child can learn to navigate their environment and succeed the less services they may need as they go through the educational system," said Melissa Herley, co-chairwoman of the Early Childhood Center's parent group.

Herley said the playground will more effectively meet children's motor, sensory and social skills.

Bruno said the mild December weather has allowed children to enjoy the playground at a time of year when it might not get a lot of use. She asked children what they thought of the new space and got a variety of responses: "It's soft," one child said of the surface. "No more wood chips," said another. "I like the car wash and the gas pump," another child told her.

The playground was designed specifically for the younger set, ages three to five, but it appealed to older "children" too. "Looking around at the playground and the toys I wish I had a chance to be three all over again," said Tetreau, adding that he remembers being in the same space decades ago when his father was the football coach. "There was nothing that was kid friendly then," he said.

Tetreau said the town's backing of the new playground is a tremendous statement about the town's commitment to education, starting from the earliest age. He said the specially-designed playground will allow for faster development of children's skill sets, which will ultimately help them learn more and make them more productive students.

Some parents of special needs children became quite emotional at the ribbon-cutting.

Kelly Glaze-Capuano could barely contain her tears. She called the new playground, "a gem." "This is our dream come true. As the mother of two special-needs children you want to provide them with everything they need to enjoy life and thrive just like any other child. This is our small way of doing that," she said. "I can't wait 'til the weather breaks. I can't wait to see them on their bicycles and plasma cars and tricycles on a bright, beautiful day," Glaze-Capuano said.

Patty Donahue, a co-chairwoman of the parent group last year, returned to the center for the dedication ceremony. Her son, Carter, 5, is now in kindergarten, but, "We've been watching the progress all through the process and since it's been completed we've played on it numerous times. He doesn't want to go to any other playground," Donahue said.

Carter has some muscular issues and has fallen several times on the new surface, but because it's rubberized "he gets right back up and no crying," she said.

Pam Iacono, chairwoman of the Board of Education, called the playground "a wonderful asset not only for the Early Childhood Center but for the Fairfield community as a whole."

"All children can use it. It's not just for the (Early Childhood Center)," Title said.