The Boston Globe – New Boston, NH

November 2006

They didn’t get the water slide they wanted, but they got almost everything else.

At New Boston Central School the new playground is not the traditional playground.   Children helped design and construct the 35-foot (dry) slide built into a hillside, the fitness course that winds around the playground and the twig arbors that mark the entrance to “Fairyland” where they use pebbles, sticks and leaves to build miniature homes for imaginary pixies. Large boulders set into the hill are arranged in a semicircle to form a small amphitheater. Woods have been thinned and low branches trimmed to create another play area. White pickets surround a large garden where students can relax in a gazebo or tend flowers and plants.

Traditional playground out.  New natural playground in.

Early on, Concord architect Ron King showed up at the elementary school with two pictures — one featuring a large, modular play structure and the other featuring a garden with walkways and paths.

“Ninety-nine percent of kids chose the natural playground,” said art teacher Judy Keefe. “People came away with the realization that what kids wanted was not all that plastic stuff.”

The school is among a handful in New Hampshire that have gone beyond the ubiquitous modular pipe-and-platform play structures. Some are trying to promote both physical fitness and a connection to nature, while others want to improve playground behavior.

At Manchester’s Beech Street School, a huge map of the world painted on the playground lets the school’s many immigrant and refugee pupils point out their homelands. Also painted on the blacktop are boards and markings for dozens of games.

The goal is to reduce conflicts and violence by providing a wide variety of physically and intellectually challenging activities. Principal Elinor Murphy said referrals to her office for playground infractions have dropped by 95 percent since the games were added in May.

“The first day when the students came out, they absolutely loved it,” she said. “Even the middle school kids who come over after school say, `This is neat.'”

Beech Street spent $2,500 on the project, including the cost of balls and other equipment.

“Instead of 100 kids out there with three balls, now we might have 15-20 balls, and jump ropes and hula hoops,” Murphy said. “There’s equipment for everyone.”

The stencils for the games came from Peaceful Playgrounds, a California company that also provides schools with a curriculum to teach children the rules of the games and how to resolve conflicts. Equally important is ensuring that the games are age-appropriate.

“On the traditional playground, there’s usually basketball, maybe volleyball, four-square and tether ball. If you look at those games and look at the skills of a first or second-grader, they’re really not going to be successful at any of them,” said Melinda Bossenmeyer, who founded the company after 27 years as a teacher and principal.

“It’s the kids running around kung-fu kicking and chasing each other who are giving you problems,” she said.

Both the Peaceful Playgrounds and “back to nature” approaches are part of a backlash against the cookie-cutter sameness of most public playgrounds, said playground expert Joe Frost.

“In the past decade or so, we’ve seen what I call the standardized era, where almost every public playground is alike: a superstructure, swings and maybe a basketball court,” said Frost, who spent three decades teaching and directing research on child development and children’s play environments at the University of Texas at Austin.

Frost believes the best playgrounds include components that match the natural play choices of children. That includes the kinds of games offered by Peaceful Playgrounds, but also materials and spaces for pretend and dramatic play, he said.

“If you just prescribe organized games painted on the pavement, you can keep down injuries perhaps, but at the same time, you’ve limited the learning opportunities of children,” he said.

Children also need materials for construction or building play, equipment for exercise, and areas that encourage socializing with friends, Frost said, along with “wild places” that allow for nature activities.

“An ideal playground puts a lot of faith in kids,” he said. “Rather than structured or built like a curriculum, play should be free. There needs to be time for free play and time for physical education, and they’re not the same thing.”

At Bedford Memorial School, 9-year-old twins Sabika and Raica Mirza spent a recent sunny recess climbing the rocks that line one side of the playground “mountain” — a huge, grass-covered slope that stands on what used to be a flat, barren field. Two slides, similar to the one in New Boston, will be installed soon.

“I like it here because in our other school, we didn’t have any sand, we didn’t have a mountain,” Sabika said. Her sister said her favorite feature of the new playground was the long berm leading up to a ramp — children run the length of it and land in a pit of wood chips.

Teacher Anne Rogers didn’t know how much the playground cost, but said donated time and materials saved tens of thousands of dollars. King, the architect who designed both the Bedford and New Boston projects, said it’s impossible to make direct comparisons to traditional playgrounds. But he said his clients get “tremendously more play value” out of his natural structures than they would a manufactured structure.

For example, a typical climbing platform could cost about $4,600 and can be used by four children at the same time. A large boulder, however, could cost $700 and be used by 15 kids, he said.

Bethany Dennis, spokeswoman for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association, disagreed. She said equipment manufacturers increasingly are finding ways to make their products more interactive, adding climbing nets and other features to promote physical, emotional and cognitive development.

“There are so many innovative ideas that playground companies are coming up with,” Dennis said. “They’re very interactive products … playing on equipment can be so beneficial.”

Indeed, the play structures in Bedford, New Boston and Manchester all were left in place and still get plenty of use, school officials said. But they all agreed that children benefit from having more choices.

Rick Matthews, principal of the New Boston school, said a typical recess before the playground was transformed involved 100 kids on the blacktop trying to find something to do and “another 50 trying to play football and pushing and shoving each other.”

“If they’re too close together, they just start bumping,” he said.

By Holly Ramer – AP
The Boston Globe – New Boston, NH
November 2006

N.H. Schools Move Beyond Traditional Playgrounds