Q&A with The Natural Playground Committee

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The current structure of the Summit Street School playground.

The current structure of the Summit Street School playground.

When you think of a playground, where does your mind go? Many, especially those who frequent Summit Street School’s playground, think of a traditional plastic and metal structure with slides, monkey bars, rings, swings and different climbing structures.

That’s what is at the Summit Street School today and many feel the 17-year-old structure is dated. Consequently, a group in town is rallying for something new.

The school’s Parent Teacher Organization has been working diligently since 2008 to raise enough funds to transition the current playground into a natural playground. The group recently launched a fundraising campaign on razoo.com — a crowd sourced fundraising platform — to raise $100,000 for the next phase of the natural playground construction.

Nicki Giard-Jeter and Gracie Engel Peirce, both of Essex Junction and both parents of students who play on the playground at Summit Street School, are the co-chairs of Natural Playground Committee. Together with the help of Paul and Kelly Adams, and Chris Catterton, the co-chairs recently elaborated on the new fundraising campaign.

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Q: How did the idea to transform the current playground into a natural playground develop?

A: In 2008, the Summit Street PTO became aware that the school’s aging play structure would need to be replaced within a few years. A subcommittee was formed to explore ideas and begin fundraising for this eventuality. Research led to an estimated price tag of $100,000 or more just to replace the existing structure with something comparable that would accommodate the student body.

This seemed a daunting amount for something that would then have to be replaced again in 20 years. In addition, simply replacing the structure would not meet other needs that had been identified, such as the need for shade and having areas for quiet play, and having a school yard that supports student learning.

\LACIE1public2005�5196 Summit - Holy Family ChurchDwgs2009The subcommittee began looking for ways of renovating the school’s outdoor space that would be innovative, based on current research and trends, while also less wasteful and more cost effective. Considering the good fortune to have several nice traditional playgrounds and parks within Essex Junction, the group felt it would be ideal if Summit could offer a different kind of play experience and an outdoor environment that would be inviting to students and community members of all ages. After learning of a school in Waterbury that had recently built a natural playground (Thatcher Brook Elementary School), they quickly began imagining how Summit Street School and the Essex Junction community could benefit from this concept.

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Q: Why not just fix the current playground structure?

A: Metal and plastic play structures have limited use and “age out” after about 20 years. The materials are expensive to replace and not as easy to maintain as a playground with natural elements. A natural playground has less waste (like aged metal and plastic) so is therefore more sustainable. As we move towards reducing waste in landfills and our community’s trash reduction strategies take hold, this is good news for the district and our community if we are already ahead of the game.

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Q: What will the natural playground offer students? Why is this an improvement from the current playground?

A: A natural playground offers children opportunities for more creative play and greater variety than a traditional structure. The next phases of the plan include active areas, quiet areas, shaded areas and best of all — unstructured play areas in nature such as water and sand.

Already, since completing the first phase of this project, it has been a joy to see kids sitting on benches in the shade of a new tree and reading books from the Little Free Libraries in the reading garden and playing board games at the game tables, a huge improvement in the variety for kids who need a break from activity and sun exposure. Those things were never possible before the first phase was completed. We are all looking forward to seeing how the kids will use the future elements that will be available to them, the ways the curriculum can be extended into outdoor education, and how access for kids of all abilities will be improved. Furthermore, this will become protected green space in the heart of the village for community members of all ages to cherish and enhance their quality of life.

Schools with outdoor education have higher test scores in standardized testing and even better, spending time outside has been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms, lower stress levels, support emotional development and raise levels of vitamin D in children, all of which promote overall better health. In the age of technology overload, why wouldn’t we want to create an oasis in our community of calm green space that supports healthy behaviors for all of us to enjoy?

Q: How much will it cost to make the renovations? How are you funding this project?

A: The next phase of the project will cost around $125,000, which is largely devoted to earth moving/shaping and drainage work to create the main infrastructure.

We have just kicked off a crowdfunding effort online to be able to reach potential donors inside and outside our community who might not come in contact with our more traditional fundraising. Through connecting with friends and family, we already have donations from New Mexico, Washington State and Utah along with many other states and towns. Fundraising has been driven solely by parent volunteers – there have been in-house fundraisers such as selling “family recipe” cookbooks and similar homegrown goods, plants/flowers, a Zumbathon, a Kids Night Out and wider efforts to reach out into the community such as a mailing to local businesses, and a Parents Night Out Silent/Live Auction at the Darkroom Gallery featuring children’s art and many local business donations. A plan to sell personalized pavers is in the works for the fall.

We would like to make sure that people in our community understand that the school budget (taxes) do not cover the costs of replacing the playground.

Many hands make light work, and we hope anyone who is able will make a donation to help make this a reality: www.razoo.com/story/The-Summit-Street-Natural-Playground

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Q: Is there a deadline to the crowd-funding service?

A: We did not choose a crowd-funding site that has a built-in deadline (like Kickstarter does for arts-related efforts), but with a goal of doing the major work next spring/summer, we would like to push hard through the fall so planning can be done effectively and decisions can be made.

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— Elsie Lynn
Rocks painted with words make a reading garden. | PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED

Rocks painted with words make a reading garden. | PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED