SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 22, 2013

Parents create a playground — and a community — in Ipswich

New play area will have tree house play structure, zip lines, musical instruments, gardens

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — IPSWICH — When it came to designing a new playground at the Winthrop Elementary School, the students’ imaginations were boundless.

They wanted a roller coaster, a petting zoo and a human catapult. Yes, a human catapult.

While those features didn’t make the cut for obvious reasons, the children will be getting a new playground this fall — a much-needed improvement to a play space the kids described as “grungy, old, broken and worn out.”

The new playground will have a large tree house play structure, an obstacle course, zip line, swings and a separate preschool area, among other amenities. It will also feature many natural elements, such as slides built into hills, a boulder climb and six raised garden beds where students will grow vegetables and flowers for the community farm program.

“It is going to be a real blend of natural and built structures,” said Michele Wertz, a member of the Winthrop School Playground Committee.

There have been plans in the works for years to replace the aging playground equipment, but there wasn’t money available in the school budget. So last fall a group of parents banded together to start raising funds. Not only have members of the community committed to raising the money, they will also help with the construction.

The committee is looking for volunteers to give a helping hand the week of Sept. 11 to 15. They need 150 volunteers to help with construction, landscaping and child care and to prepare snacks and meals for the workers. The group has hired Play by Design in Ithaca, N.Y., to oversee the project. The total cost is $250,000, with more than $200,000 raised so far.

Wertz said a lot of the design elements came during a design day held at the school in February where students and parents met with the architect to brainstorm ideas for the playground. Each student had a chance to draw what their ideal playground would look like.

“It really created a buzz around the project,” Wertz said. “It was fun to see their creativity.”

The project will also address chronic drainage and flooding issues in the playground area, Wertz said. The area has been very dusty because the grass won’t grow.

Winthrop School Principal Sheila McAdams said it has been exciting to watch the project gain momentum over the past year. It is more than just building a new playground, she said; it’s an educational lesson for the students as well.

“It is a good example of how people come together and work together,” she said. “It is a good example of democracy.”

She said the new playground is designed in part to foster exploration and socialization. There will be a walking path made out of willow branches, sun dials and musical instruments. A small amphitheater for outdoor lessons is also included in the design.

“It is going to feel like play, but they will also be learning as well,” McAdams said. “It is nice to fit that in. Those are real-life experiences. It is an example of how learning happens all the time.”

The fundraising campaign was kicked off with a $50,000 matching grant from Doug DeAngelis, who has a son going into second grade. He said it was his son’s first year at the school after attending a Montessori school in Beverly.

“I figured one year’s worth of enrolling my son at the Montessori School would help jump-start the financial campaign for a playground that would help generations of kids, not just him,” DeAngelis said.

He said it’s been great working with all the parents who are committed to making the project a success.

“It is creating a lot of ownership in the school,” he said.

The Institution for Savings donated $50,000, the extended day program $25,000 and EBSCO $10,000 toward the project.

For more information on the project or to donate or volunteer, go to winthropplayground.org.

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.