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Seattle school playgrounds become community gathering spots

Landscape Structures designs attract students and parents, who help plan and fund district projects

The Seattle School District is systematically updating play areas to include modern, fitness-inspired equipment that welcomes all comers, from the finicky adolescent to the student with special needs and even parents catching up after school hours. The concept of play area as community gathering space has long been part of the district’s philosophy, explains Gretchen DeDecker, Self Help Projects program manager for the 100-school district.

That concept has been furthered by Landscape Structures Inc., one of the district’s approved vendors for these projects. Landscape Structures, which has equipped about 25 of the district’s play areas over the past 20 years, has distinguished itself with high-quality, low-maintenance equipment popular with all ages, DeDecker says. Besides double-swirl and roller slides, Landscape Structures playgrounds may include climbing nets, zip lines and 12-foot-high towers. Cushioned surfacing made of wood fiber or polyurethane provides a soft landing. “Now that we have equipment designed to be more challenging for older students, we notice 6th to 8th graders are using the playground more,” DeDecker says. “Students of all ages are enjoying the slides, climbing apparatus and even places to just hang out and socialize.”

Installation of the play area can be done with volunteers supervised by professionals, DeDecker says. “On build day, starting with donated coffee and baked goods at 8 a.m., dozens of volunteers working two or three shifts can complete the play structures in about eight hours,” she adds. Another day’s worth of volunteers installs the safety surfacing. “One of my favorite experiences was seeing 30 or so volunteers chatting the entire time they were assembling and installing equipment, sharing what street they lived on, what classes their children were in,’’ DeDecker says. “That’s a bonus of community-built playgrounds; they’re a catalyst for bringing people together for a common goal.” In Seattle School District, PTAs or community groups raise funds that are often matched through city or county grants. With budget in hand, the group considers proposals from approved vendors and selects one to do the project. Volunteers who choose Landscape Structures typically cite variety of equipment, the modern feel of the overall structure and available features that challenge older students who in the past did not use the school playground, DeDecker says.

The entire process falls under the district’s Self Help Programs department, which was established in the 1970s and oversees various projects that involve partnering between the community and district. Playground projects are often necessary to update or replace older equipment to address growth, safety standards or requirements such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Landscape Structures, with its double-wide ramps and stationary cycler for students using mobility devices, ensures students of all abilities can participate. “At Salmon Bay, an alternative K8 school, students with autism can play in smaller, less-crowded play areas that use muted colors and textures meant to prevent overstimulation,” DeDecker says. And Hawthorne Elementary School’s playground features high-back seats on a speed-limited spinner.

“Playgrounds are an important component of our educational environments, to support physical, social and emotional development of all children,” DeDecker says. “But we’ve also seen them become a gathering space outside of school hours, where we see adults drinking coffee or tea and chatting, getting to know each other while supervising their children. “You not only have a beautiful playground when you’re done, but all the people involved have a strong connection to the school,” DeDecker adds. “It really makes a difference.”

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