Natural playground comes to Waterbury
BY MOLLY WALSH ‚ÄĘ FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
WATERBURY ‚ÄĒ In the bright morning sunshine, three little girls scampered across a dirt path,
jumped on boulders, twirled on the stage of an amphitheater and perched under an apple tree
to make dandelion and red clover necklaces.
Click HERE to watch a video about this project
RYAN MERCER, Free Press
Second-grader Aiden Chmura, 8, surveys the Thatcher Brook School natural playground in Waterbury.
Nearby, several children played a make-believe game best described as ‚Äúlost baby runs from
voracious tiger‚ÄĚ that had them running from a large sand pit to a small ‚Äúcave.‚ÄĚ All the action
took place on the new school playground at Thatcher Book Primary School.
The rustic facility snugged against a hillside next to the old brick school will be officially
dedicated today and perhaps be viewed as a trendsetter. The fun zone is a so-called natural
playground designed to eschew plastic and metal in favor of more earthy features that are
supposed to help children connect with nature and use their imaginations.
Thatcher Brook principal Don Schneider said the playground has resulted in more creative
play, fewer tiffs related to crowding on traditional playground equipment, and the happy sight of
children running after butterflies, playing in the mud and gathering wild flowers.
Even in Waterbury, a small town surrounded by fields and mountains, some children don‚Äôt get
outside much, he said. ‚ÄúThis is connecting kids back to nature and it‚Äôs letting them have a
greater appreciation of nature so they can be better stewards when they are adults,‚ÄĚ Schneider
Instead of a large, new climbing structure with metal bars to swing from and plastic ramps to
run on, the Thatcher Brook playground has a brick labyrinth, a water garden and slides built
into the hillside so no one can fall off and everyone can ride down ‚ÄĒ even kids who couldn‚Äôt
manage the ladder stairs on a traditional slide.
There are lilacs, shade trees and hosta, a dinosaur and baby dinosaur made out of branches
and twigs and a boulder-studded climbing path to the top of the slides. Two small shelters ‚ÄĒ
similar in size to what Fido might call home ‚ÄĒ are backed against the hill and designed to look
like tiny caves.
Lilianna Ziedins, 6, says her favorite part of the playground is the blossoms. ‚ÄúI like how it has a
lot of flowers,‚ÄĚ she explained as she made dandelion crowns and ponytail holders with her
friends. Above them, two little boys stood in the neck of an apple tree and tried at various
points ‚ÄĒ unsuccessfully ‚ÄĒ to get the girls interested in playing with them.
The boys could not lure the girls into a game of tag, especially after the boys pointed out,
clearly hurting their cause, that they were victors in the previous rounds.
The playground might be natural but that does not mean inexpensive. It cost $90,000, not
including an additional $30,000 that will be spent to build a handicapped-accessible treehouse
in July. The money was raised from grants and donations, and many parents and community
groups pitched in to help build stairs and plant shrubs.
The final cost, about $120,000, is in the same ballpark as a high-end traditional school
playground. ‚ÄúPlaygrounds aren‚Äôt cheap, no matter how you do them,‚ÄĚ Schneider said.
Parents formed a playground committee after a $7.8 million renovation of the school, whose
oldest section dates to 1897; and reconfigured the grounds for new parking and safer traffic
flow. The playground committee looked at several traditional playground proposals before
choosing to design a project with The Natural Playgrounds Co. based in Concord, N.H.
Reed McCracken, a Waterbury father of two and president of the Thatcher Brook PTO, said
that at first the natural playground idea received a mixed response in the community. ‚ÄúA lot of
people were like, ‚ÄėWhy are doing this? Why don‚Äôt we just build a play structure?‚Äô‚ÄĚ recalled
McCracken. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs that paradigm shift. It‚Äôs getting out of the box which says a playground is
seesaws and swings.‚ÄĚ
He‚Äôs convinced that the natural playground is much more likely to stimulate children‚Äôs sense of
play than the more familiar notion of a playground. Whether it‚Äôs stacking rocks, pulling ants off
logs or creating a fairy village in the long grass, the children are finding creative ways to
entertain themselves during their daily 30-minute school recess as well as after-school play
sessions at the facility.
‚ÄúThe possibilities are much wider with the natural playground,‚ÄĚ McCracken said. ‚ÄúMore than
anything else about the playground, the types of imaginative play I‚Äôve seen have been truly
Last week, children at recess engaged in a variety of games. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre pretending that we‚Äôre
babies and our mom‚Äôs trying to find us,‚ÄĚ said Jessica Lamb, 6,before flitting away and calling
out to a girl playing a tiger: ‚ÄúYou‚Äôre going to eat us, we‚Äôre little babies!‚ÄĚ
In a field at the top of the hill overlooking the playground, a group of 10 children ‚ÄĒ all boys ‚ÄĒ
played kickball. A few children ran around a paved area used for basketball, four-square and
hopscotch ‚ÄĒ proving there is still interest for some of the traditional playground activities at the
school. A large swing set leftover from the previous playground was idle while children played
on the boulders and strutted the stage of the amphitheater.
Derek Stowe, 8, fooled around in the sandbox and gave the playground ‚ÄĒ all of it ‚ÄĒ his stamp
of approval. ‚ÄúEverything is my favorite thing,‚ÄĚ he said.
Please contact The Natural Playgrounds Company® to discuss your thoughts and plans. We welcome your inquiries and will get back in touch with you promptly.
Thank you for spending some time with us today.
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