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The Children’s School of Oak Park, a progressive K-8 school outside Chicago, turned their parking lot into a nature play space on a nonprofit budget—a little over $1,000 all told.

How did they do it? A grant from the Deep Roots Project was part of it. The volunteer-led Chicago community organization teaches people to grow edible and native plant gardens in urban lots and residences. The bulk of the work, though, says Lea Schweitz, an outdoor education consultant and associate professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, grew out of ingenuity and determination.

When the school moved from its home of 12 years in nearby Berwyn to the St. Edmund’s parish school building, a wing of the towering neoclassical Catholic church, it left behind a baseball field and grassy area for outdoor play. A small paved courtyard framed by the church’s stone walls and intricately wrought spires offered a nice view, but little greenery and limited possibilities for play.

Lea Schweitz, outdoor education consultant and director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science | photo courtesy of The Children’s School of Oak Park

But for Schweitz, whose two boys attend the school, the courtyard presented an open canvas, an opportunity to bring the school’s focus on nature education and nature play to the outdoors. She struck a working partnership with school administrators and began making calls. Local garden centers. Recycle and reuse centers. A local tree company. Donations began to come in and momentum built. Helping to galvanize a shared vision around a “riverside” theme, she worked with faculty, parents, and students to design and build the play space in what she describes as “a schoolwide community barn-raising, with everyone involved.”

“It’s a combination of what it takes to do nature engagement in city and self-directed play for kids like mine,” Schweitz says.

When I visited the school last week, heaps of melting snow and ice covered much of the space, but the tasteful mix of natural elements and found objects was no less impressive. There are World War I breadbox storage containers and a recovered pale blue rowboat for imaginative play. A ring of 40”-60” diameter tree stumps at varying heights and angles offer an impromptu venue for jumping or sitting. Salvaged radial tires function as reading chairs. Children can build their own play forts out of scrap lumber, bricks, branches, sticks, and twigs, and the rules for building and dismantling these creations have become a regular part of the school’s democratic town-hall style decision making forum.

Much of the project’s elbow grease and “imagineering” came from students. They painted a blue river on the asphalt and extended the riverside theme to the upper balcony of the courtyard, known as the “the bluff.” This includes a sand play area with large buckets, a mud kitchen playhouse, and water access. Other ecologically themed zones—the pond, the lake, the ocean—emerged organically as students began to use the space.

Students build fort from salvaged timber | photo courtesy of The Children’s School of Oak Park

Calculated Risk
Emphasizing the value of nature play to parents in an era of hyper-sensitivity to risk is something school leaders have been very deliberate about. Communications Coordinator Tracy Litsey provides project updates in the school’s newsletter and social media sites, and photos of the student’s forts have been especially popular among students and parents, displayed on a tack board in a school hallway and aggregated under the hashtag #fortfriday. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods is among many texts they have pointed parents to as resources.

“It hasn’t been hidden. The way we’ve narrated this has been framed, from the beginning, around risk and hazard, and all the pieces telling the right story,” Schweitz says.

The overriding message, according to Schweitz, is that risk is an inherent and healthy part of childhood development—an idea that extends to the academic realm. Whether children are jumping among irregularly surfaced tree stumps or tackling difficult math problems, calculated and appropriate risks are viewed as necessary to their growth and discovery.

Nature-based Progressive Education
Christina Martin, a fifth-grade teacher and the school’s curriculum director, says the play space also dovetails well with the school’s broader social justice curriculum. Though now used mainly for free play at recess or informal lessons, the long-term goal is to activate the space as a venue for hands-on projects on earth stewardship and resource conservation. To some degree, this is already happening. In the spring, the third graders will engage in a farming unit, planting edible crops in raised beds. Older children who visit sites within the Cook County Forest Preserves for lessons on local ecology and wildlife use the outdoor area for projects that reinforce their connection to nature.

Martin readily admits that the play space is a work in progress. Many of the areas planned for installation in the spring, including a sensory garden, a rain harvesting area, and potential habitats for chickens and bees, are still being hashed out. And although the reception among parents has been overwhelmingly positive, some initially expressed uncertainty about the play space, unsure how it was supposed to function.

“It doesn’t read the same way as a typically playground; it’s not a swing set. Some of the parents who volunteered said, ‘I didn’t get it until I saw kids out there.’ Then, I think, it called to mind play experiences they had as children that were powerful. Less structured,” Martin says.

Students, for their part, appear to have embraced it well, taking creative ownership of many of the areas in the small but well-organized footprint. Kindergartners’ artwork now faces outdoors from the classroom windows, colorful murals line the U-shaped courtyard, and a timber ramp descending from the courtyard balcony to the main play space has become the focal point of physically active games of “hot lava.”

In many ways, the play space resembles, on a micro-level scale, the adventure playgrounds commonly found in Denmark, Germany, or Japan. The mobile, somewhat rough-and-rude quality of the design, comes with risk. But Martin says it’s the kind of risk the school, which grew up in the long shadow of Chicago progressive educator John Dewey, is ready for. “What a shift it represents from the approach where every hour of a child’s life is filled with programmed activities: violin lessons, piano, homework. This is the polar opposite. Here are a bunch of materials you get to create and work with in the space,” Martin says. “We’re very excited about it.”