Playing comes naturally at Methow Elementary's new romp space
By Ann McCreary
Put a kid next to a big log and the next thing you know, the kid has climbed up on the log, is running along the log, and is probably jumping off the log.
This scenario will no doubt be demonstrated many times when school begins at Methow Valley Elementary School, after students discover the new additions to their school playground.
Through an initiative launched last year by interested parents, the playground now includes a newly landscaped area that provides natural features – pathways, logs and rocks – that entice kids to play.
The landscaping at the south end of the playground includes pathways made of bark chips, three large logs with intriguing, curling root wads, big rocks strategically placed for climbing and sitting, and circles of stones surrounding a flat rock that can serve as a table.
The materials were brought onto the school grounds last week, and a work party of volunteers on Saturday (Aug. 21) spread bark and helped complete other work. During the work party, the attraction of the logs was evident, as kids at the gathering climbed on the logs, ran along the length of them and jumped from one to another.
This is the first part of a three-phase project, and the realization of a vision that parent Ina Clark proposed last year. Clark, a parent of two children, said her own observations, and learning about research on children’s play, convinced her to urge school officials to provide more natural surroundings on the school playground.
“I was inspired by watching my own children and other children play,” said Clark, who previously helped teach in a Waldorf School, which emphasizes connections to nature. “When they play with natural elements, they tend to be more harmonious.”
Clark said her mother-in-law, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Maryland, provided information about research that supports the importance of connecting children to nature through play. Clark said studies have found a variety of benefits when children play in natural environments. For example, their play is more imaginative and encourages language and cooperative skills; self-esteem is enhanced and bullying decreases; motor skills such as balance and agility improve; and concentration and self-discipline in the classroom improve.
Clark, with Eveline Wathen and a few other parents, began meeting last fall to explore the idea of providing more natural surroundings at the elementary school. Clark said superintendent Mark Wenzel was very supportive, and the parents began looking into hiring a professional landscaper to develop a plan. Then, the community began to get involved.
The Winthrop Kiwanis heard about the idea, and encouraged Clark to present the concept to the organization. As a result, the Kiwanis pledged up to $3,000 for the project’s first phase. It also brought Gregg Knott, a Kiwanis member and a member of the school district’s facilities committee, into the project.
Knott offered another important connection. Project manager for the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, Knott was able to arrange for the donation of several large logs, which are used by the foundation to improve salmon habitat, for the playground project. Knott has also helped organize work on the project.
Lloyd Logging donated transportation and labor to place the large logs and rocks. The landscape design was developed by Paul George of Cascade Landscape Design Group in Bellingham, and the $3,000 cost was paid by the district through the capital projects fund. The designer came to the school at no cost, Clark said, to supervise the placement of logs and rocks.
Pearrygin Lake State Park donated wood chips to provide a soft cushion beneath the logs, and for pathways. In addition to their financial support, the Kiwanis provided labor to sand down rough places on the logs and are constructing wood benches.
Knott estimated that the donated materials – the logs, rocks and bark – and the donated transportation and labor to put them in place would cost $10,000 to $15,000. The community involvement has kept the costs to a minimum.
“It hasn’t been hard to get the help and there have been so many contributors,” Knott said.
The playground design calls for two more phases. The second, which Knott said will probably take place next year, will construct a small amphitheater that will be dug into the hill on the playground’s south end. The amphitheater will provide an outdoor space for classes and performances, as well as recreation. Slides made of plastic piping, left over from salmon recovery projects, will be installed on the hill for students to slip down.
A third phase will create a bermed “quiet area,” seeded with natural grasses, near the covered play area in the center of the playground. It’s envisioned as a place where students can sit and relax during recesses. A maze made out of stones is also planned.
Photo by Ann McCreary: Photo by Ann McCreary: The big logs in the new, naturally landscaped play area at Methow Valley Elementary School present kids with an irresistible invitation to climb and jump, as demonstrated by Wiley Seckinger, 9. His mother, Ina Clark, works at spreading bark beneath the logs during last weekend’s work party.