BRATTLEBORO — Natural elements complement Oak Grove School’s “living schoolyard” play structures.
“It was fun to watch the playground evolve and see what fascinates and interests kids because it changes all the time,” said director Mary Kaufmann. “And you know, some days those raspberry bushes are really popular, closer to summer. But other days it’s the swings, and some days that bridge over there in the middle of the field. Kids love to be up there, just look out over the rest of the playground.”
The Windham Southeast School District Board recently unanimously approved improvements for the schoolyard. About $15,000 from the U.S. Federal Bailout Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund is expected to cover the costs.
Kaufmann, who inherited plans for the project from his predecessor Jeri Curry, said a team of parents had been “interested in revamping the schoolyard to make it a living schoolyard rather than just a playground”. A consultant helped develop a plan.
One of the benefits of the property is open land space, Kaufmann said.
“Being in a really residential area, it’s rare to have such an open field,” she said. “And that’s really where a lot of kids like to play. But we wanted to incorporate different natural aspects and different experiences for kids when they’re outside, because not everyone wants to play organized sport. Everything not everyone wants to play on a metal play structure.”
Now in her third year as principal at Oak Grove, Kaufmann said progress was slowly being made and additions were coming to the schoolyard.
The gardens have been moved to a more centralized location just behind the school building. Tara Gordon, Garden Coordinator, worked with the classes on planting and harvesting.
“I think almost every class is now involved in some aspect of the garden,” Kaufmann said.
Added to this is a sensory trail, which the school received a grant to develop. Kaufmann said the goal is “to offer different sensory inputs” related to smell, touch and taste. For example, students can pick raspberries on the way.
A back door has become the access point for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. A path has been created to bring them to the asphalt area.
“It’s made of sure pack,” Kaufmann said, referring to a type of gravel, “so it’s a different texture than they get in the fields. It’s a different texture than they get on tarmac and it’s a different texture than they get on this walkway – so just a different sensory input but this path also takes you through trees so you get, again, different sights and smells.
An outdoor classroom with stumps from a tree donated to the school is sometimes used for parkour, which involves jumping at different points as efficiently as possible. Also, stumps are good for sitting on.
This summer there are plans to complete the trail that leads to the gate and a wooden bridge. Kaufmann said the bridge “gives kids height to access a different scenic view from up there.”
The hope is to put big rocks to climb and sit on.
“Obviously that area we’ll have to chip it because if the kids are climbing it has to be safe in case they fall,” Kaufmann said.
Tara Davis, a parent and president of the school’s Parent Teach Organization that won the sensory journey grant, is helping plan a more permanent story walk as part of the offerings.
“She’s been a real advocate for this project and has done a lot of work in terms of volunteer work,” Kaufmann said, crediting Davis with putting together pieces of history walks in the past and having found the trees that were donated. “So that was really his project.”
Another part of the project is to install a ramp so that the garden and the backdoor are accessible to people with disabilities. Kaufmann said the school is handicap accessible, but through the front door.
The addition of the ramp will allow students in wheelchairs or on crutches to be with their peers when exiting the playground or entering the school from the schoolyard. Kaufmann plans to add some plantings to the sides of the ramp such as herbs, edibles or fragrant plants.
Apple and oak trees have already been planted at the school.
“It’s definitely an ongoing project,” Kaufmann said. “We do the bits that we can.”
Kaufmann described having fun arranging the schoolyard.
Last year the students were asked what they would like to see and they chose an area to dig. Also a favorite among kids is a 5-6 foot dirt mound for rolling around and doing gymnastics.
Involved in the effort from the start, Davis said she “spent many sleepless nights brainstorming ideas.” She had suggested investing in the services of a playground designer to consult on developing a vision for the schoolyard.
Davis is reviewing the project following feedback from staff, students, and the wider community.
“We tried to link the main stakeholders,” she said.
The plan included DIY initiatives and ways to make projects more meaningful to students.
“Somewhere along the way we had a manager change, COVID happened,” Davis said. “We’ve been working in spurts. I’m thrilled now because with the help of these ESSER funds, this COVID relief fund building infrastructure, now is the perfect time to see it through. It’s exciting to see it come to life because that’s literally what happens.”
Davis, who lives near Oak Grove School, called the schoolyard the “heart of the neighborhood.” In space, she sees families celebrating birthdays and playing games of tee-ball. She especially enjoys watching the children eat the berries.