Over 250 current and alumni families, past and present faculty members of Evergreen Montessori School in Silver Spring, Maryland dedicated a new custom-designed Tree House play structure in honor of the 30-year career of Primary Division Director Marilynn Liotta. The dedication of the Tree House took place at the school’s annual Spring Festival and featured a violin recital and choral concert. Guest speakers included Mrs. Lynn Pellaton who served as Head of School from 1972 to 1996.
The Tree House is all natural and was constructed from sustainably harvested Black Locust logs and Osage Orange branches. The Tree House is a permanent part of the school’s award-winning rain garden and was built by local craftsman Marcus Sims. Ms. Liotta is retiring at the end of the school year.
Here’s our new play structure– The Tree House– being installed. It is about as natural and organic as anything you would find in an Appalachian forest. As an Evergreen parent wrote… “How COOL is that!”
This 18-foot tall play sculpture was custom-designed by Bill Hutchens and is being installed by Marcus Sims and Allan Hill. The Tree House consists of four platforms, rope ladders and a slide. It is made of black locust trunks and Osage Orange branches and pressure treated decking lumber.
When I told some children that we were going to call it The Tree House, they corrected me: “It’s a fortress.” “It’s a tower.” “No, its a pirate ship.” It’s as mutable and whimsical as imagination itself.
It has been a while since I posted to my blog, but not because I haven’t been writing. I just completed two courses at Montgomery College, and both required long term papers based on very specific content requirements. My creative energy was sapped.
But when I came across an article in the New York Times on the Carnegie Museum’s Playground Project on the history of playground design, I began to feel free enough to write again.
The article traces the roots of the Evergreen Garden and Playground concept to the Danish landscape architect in the 1930’s named Carl Theodor Sorensen. According to the Times, Sorensen, “advanced the radical notion that children were happiest when playing with junk.” Toward the end of World War II, he began designing playgrounds that encouraged children to build, dig and create with natural and man-made materials including bricks and building debris. He called these new spaces skrammellegeplads or “junk playgrounds.”
Whether writing, building, cooking, making music or any other creative pursuit, we all need a skrammellegeplad… a safe place to play and try things out.
Learning and playing are acts of freedom. It is great to be free.
I was eating a delicious pork banh mi sandwich at Saigonese Restaurant with my son and daughter today when I noticed the Evergreen School mural across the parking lot. The mural was created in 2009 by Evergreen students. Here are a few of my photos; I was focussed on close ups, but felt obliged to include one picture that reveals the mural’s massive size. It must be at least 30 feet long and 20 feet tall. Our school is so proud to be responsible for such an awesome Wheaton landmark! I would love to hear stories about how it was painted.
Should we re-design playgrounds for the iPad era?
Before we tackle that question, just imagine how sad the world would be without playgrounds. For almost all of history, there were none. It wasn’t until 1887 that the first one in North America was constructed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The rapid growth of cities at the end of the Nineteenth Century obliged the construction of urban play spaces. As families left farming communities for city life, children found themselves without trees to climb, rocks to hop, or hills to scramble. Change was needed, and in 1907 Teddy Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to advocate for city playgrounds in Washington.
Now, 100 years later, technological change requires us once again to rethink our outdoor play. Richard Louv points out in his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, children today are disconnected from the natural world. Louv, horrified, relates the story of child who told him, “I like to play indoors better ´cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.” Louv documents the emotional and existential distress caused by too little exposure to the natural, physical world. Air conditioning, iPhones, and the internet have made it harder for all of us to have intimate encounters with rain drops, earthworms and dandelions. Yet our souls need these encounters to center and balance us.
These days, playgrounds must do more than provide a place for safe, physical play. They must also expose children to natural elements—such as rocks, logs, water and other features that stimulate the senses. As Maria Montessori understood, we learn directly from our senses—thus sensual experiences are the foundation for learning. Most modern, industrial playgrounds are constructed of painted steel frames careful constructed more for their Consumer Product Safety Rating score than their organic, natural elements. Even the New York Times asked “Can a Playground be Too Safe” ( NYT, 7/19/2011) .
Fortunately, there are many educational leaders who understand the needs of children to experience the natural world. Last week, Lesley Romanoff, the director of the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School showed me her school’s fantastic play space; it has a squirrel bridge, tea house, canoe and creek bed. She directed me to Springzaad, an online network of teachers, nature educators, public servants, landscape architects, and horticulturists who are promoting natural space for children to play. Springzaad advocates elements such as herb gardens, shelters, rafts and more.
At the one year anniversary of the Evergreen School Rain Garden, I find deeper appreciation for the wisdom of our play space design. Even more wonderful than seeing Evergreen students floating wood chips down our creek, planting in the vegetable garden, hopping on logs, stepping stones and hiding among our native grasses—it is awesome to see children’s connection to nature deepened, even in our suburban patch of Wheaton/Silver Spring.
There are some things you just can’t do on an iPad.
You can see more pictures of our Rain Garden on our Pintrest page.