Academy School building a natural playground

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BRATTLEBORO — Academy School is getting a new playground.

On Saturday, students, faculty and parents gathered at the school to help build a new natural playground. It was step one of a two-year project.

A natural playground is made of mostly natural materials and is designed to encourage imaginative play, Principal Andy Paciulli said.

The playground is a part of ongoing efforts from the Academy School to get students to play in nature more often. The school has already implemented some activities for students to interact with nature. Near the site of the natural playground, there's a small trail that students walk on to study nature-based science.

"They [students] do different things in the world as a part of the curriculum," Paciulli said.

He believes that children today don't have enough free time outside. Children spend 23 hours a day inside, he said. When they do get outside and moving, their play is usually structured. They are at soccer practice or doing physical education, Paciulli said. Recess on traditional playgrounds isn't much better. Each separate play structure only has one purpose. Kids are supposed to slide, or swing, or do the monkey bars.

"Everything is prescribed," he said.

Natural playgrounds are more open to interpretation.

"We want kids to be able to use their imagination," he said. The structures the natural playground uses, such as a boulder and logs, encourage creativity.

"There are different things you can do on these logs," Paciulli said. "You can climb underneath them, you can climb up on them, you can be on it and make a little train. It invites kids to be much more imaginative."

Imagination, Paciulli said, "is just important in life."

In addition to encouraging imagination, natural playgrounds are often cheaper and more sustainable to build than a traditional playground, Rachel Loeffler from Berkshire Design said.

"We love doing natural playgrounds," she said.

Other structures the playground will use include a pond to play in the water, a mud kitchen, a wood fort, a drum structure, walls made out of willow, a sledding hill, a shade canopy, moveable stumps and a slide.

"The site really lends itself well to natural playgrounds," Loeffler said. The site has a natural slope that helped with building the sledding hill.

The design process was a collaborative effort. Berkshire Designs drew up the plans for the playground then got feedback from a committee of staff and parents.

"We had a discussion of what kinds of features we wanted to have and activities," Paciulli said.

One of the most popular structures is the willow walls. They will act as sort of a mini maze for students to run through.

"At the top is a sort of tipi," made of willow, Loeffler explained.

The shade canopy was another popular structure. It will give teachers somewhere to sit and watch the students play.

The only push back the group got was for the mud kitchen.

"Some of the teachers were worried they [the students] were going to get too dirty," Frehsee said.

Eventually, though, they relented.

"We'll figure it out," Paciulli said. "Kids and dirt, they go together."

When all the designs had been finalized, Bellco Excavating cleared the path for building to begin

Cory Frehsee, a parent and civil engineer for Stevens & Associates, also helped lay the groundwork for the design.

The project would normally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars Paciulli said. "Due to the planning strategy, Berkshire Designs' creativity and all the volunteers, we're trying to do it for $50,000 or $60,000," he said.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.

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