St. Joseph Catholic preschool installs 'playscape'

Space adds a little wildness to city kids' lives

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Ever kick your kid out the door with no mission at all, other than to "just go play"?

Play used to be so simple to accomplish. Head outside and there it was, like a reliable friend, just waiting for your senses and your imagination.

Times have changed. Children are organized, coordinated and chaperoned. They're funneled into team sports when barely old enough to hold a bat or kick a ball. Their adult-driven activities often require registration, liability waivers, fees, equipment. And then, when the season is over, everybody gets a trophy.

"Parents feel, if the kids aren't doing something structured, it doesn't count," said preschool teacher Laura Veasy. "But kids need to learn to structure themselves."

Of course, nervous parents aren't completely misguided. There's reason to worry about unsupervised children. Especially the young ones. Especially here in the city.

So Veasy is thrilled this summer to watch her vision of a different sort of playground — one that's all about unfettered exploration and imagination — get installed on the Cardinal Preschool grounds at St. Joseph Catholic School in central Vancouver.

"I feel like God put me here for a reason and this is it," said the rural Camas resident, who grew up alongside birds and deer and other wandering wildlife, and hates the idea that contemporary city kids only get to play and explore after grown-ups have organized and vetted everything.

Of course, that's exactly what is happening at St. Joseph — but you might say the new "playscape" here is organized only for self-directed discovery and creativity. It may not be the same as wandering the forest, but it's as close as Veasy can get to that spirit of wonder while still keeping the littlest kids contained in a reliably safe place.

Fairly reliably safe, added St. Joe Principal Lesley Harrison. "There's got to be an element of risk — reasonable risk," she said. For the littlest kids, reasonable risk means the possibility of falling down and the complex life lesson contained therein: You can get hurt. But you can also get up, and get back to it.

To what?

• To the living willow arch and the 4-foot grassy hill (complete with a double slide embedded in the ground).

• The musical laboratory that's filled with hanging chimes and homemade percussion instruments.

• The play kitchen, featuring wooden stump tables and stools, as well as a kid-accessible storage cabinet for pots and pans.

• The entrance trellis and mural wall, the sand pit (with wooden boat) and stepping stumps (of varying altitudes but never rising 30 inches above the wood chips).

• The foot bridge, creek bed and clever kid-activated water tower that gets the creek rolling.

This Cardinal Preschool playscape was proposed as part of overall school expansion plans, and it got the blessing of the St. Joseph leadership early on. That's thanks in part to the ruggedly sheltered childhood of Harrison, the principal.

"There was this empty lot across the street from where I grew up in California, and the entire neighborhood played there," Harrison recalled with a gleam in her eye. "We played every game you can think of, and we had wars -- I suppose that's not P.C. to say — and threw dirt clods at each other.

"Nobody worried about you because everyone was there together. We were safe. That empty lot was the best playground you could ask for."

A disused lot is a far cry from a sophisticated, plotted playground — but when Veasy took Harrison and other administrators to visit the similar playscape at Clark College's new Early Learning Center, it was an easy connection to make.

"I think it's a wonderful concept," said Harrison. "It reminded me of some values I grew up with, that really need to be reintroduced to our children." Designing and building a playground like this is more expensive than installing a standard one with off-the-shelf equipment, Harrison said, but she sees this as "a long-term investment in our children and families."

From concept to reality

To translate the concept into reality, Veasy turned to Leon Smith of Planet Earth Playscapes in Portland (earthplay.net) for specifics and designs. She's waiting to hear about a Vancouver Watersheds Alliance grant that will help retire the project's debt; she's also gotten plenty of volunteer and in-kind help from St. Joe families who work in construction or could supply materials such as sand and gravel. Team Construction is doing the bulk of labor.

Meanwhile, Veasy let her kids' parents know that she'd welcome support for the project instead of end-of-year tokens of appreciation — Christmas tree ornaments and Starbucks gift cards — and came up with $700 in parent donations.

Work was moving quickly when The Columbian visited earlier this month; Veasy and Harrison have been concerned about getting all the construction done -- not just the playground but the addition of a new two-classroom portable building — in time for the beginning of fall classes.

Early on the morning of July 10, Team workers poured the concrete path, then added the special playscape touch by stamping the wet concrete with animal tracks of all sorts. Smith of Planet Earth Playscapes provided these stamping tools including, Veasy was slightly astonished to find, real turkey feet.

"We are creating an illusion," said Veasy. "But to a child of five, these tracks are real."

Planned independence

The Cardinal Preschool playscape won't be open to the general public, Veasy said, but she'll be eager to provide tours for fellow educators and other interested parties.

"There have been many studies to show that connecting children to nature stimulates their cognitive ability in the classroom, increases social interaction and decreases bullying," said Veasy.

In fact, lots of recent science — handily aggregated by the Children and Nature Network at childrenandnature.org — finds that contact with the natural world has myriad benefits, including boosting mental and physical health; increasing healthy social behavior and decreasing conflict; counteracting symptoms of attention-deficit disorder and depression in children; enhancing peace, self-control and self-discipline among inner-city youth; reducing stress among highly stressed children in rural areas; and so on.

"Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors," one 2005 study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine concludes.

And there's no shortage of data finding that today's children spend far less time outdoors than their parents did, and that obesity and sedentary lifestyles are on the rapid rise.

The Children and Nature Network was started by author Richard Louv, who coined the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe our society's increasing alienation from the natural world. Louv's mission is to encourage parents to connect their children with nature — and then get out of the way while the kids get busy doing their own thing.

In a 2010 interview with The Columbian, Louv acknowledged the irony of this: "In order to give kids some semblance of independent outdoor experience, we're probably going to have to organize a lot of it," he said.