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Natural playground comes to Waterbury

BY MOLLY WALSH • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

WATERBURY — 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 “lost baby runs from voracious tiger” that had them running from a large sand pit to a small “cave.” 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’t get outside much, he said. “This is connecting kids back to nature and it’s letting them have a greater appreciation of nature so they can be better stewards when they are adults,” Schneider said.

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 — even kids who couldn’t 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 — similar in size to what Fido might call home — 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. “I like how it has a lot of flowers,” 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 — unsuccessfully — 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. “Playgrounds aren’t cheap, no matter how you do them,” 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. “A lot of people were like, ‘Why are doing this? Why don’t we just build a play structure?’” recalled McCracken. “It’s that paradigm shift. It’s getting out of the box which says a playground is seesaws and swings.”

He’s convinced that the natural playground is much more likely to stimulate children’s sense of play than the more familiar notion of a playground. Whether it’s 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.

“The possibilities are much wider with the natural playground,” McCracken said. “More than anything else about the playground, the types of imaginative play I’ve seen have been truly impressive.”

Last week, children at recess engaged in a variety of games. “We’re pretending that we’re babies and our mom’s trying to find us,” said Jessica Lamb, 6,before flitting away and calling out to a girl playing a tiger: “You’re going to eat us, we’re little babies!”

In a field at the top of the hill overlooking the playground, a group of 10 children — all boys — played kickball. A few children ran around a paved area used for basketball, four-square and hopscotch — 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 — all of it — his stamp of approval. “Everything is my favorite thing,” he said.


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