October 4, 2012 | Volume 43, No. 40

Head Start finishes 'natural' playground

Head Start teachers, parents and volunteers gathered Sept. 21 to dedicate a playground two years in the making that statewide officials describe as a model play space for young children.

Debi Baldwin, child development director for RuralCAP in Anchorage, said the new playground and another in Ketchikan are the only two of their kind statewide. “It’s about taking playgrounds and turning them into natural playscapes, using local input and local materials.”

In an enclosed area measuring about 50 by 90 feet adjacent to the preschool, “Pete’s Playground” includes a tunnel of lashed-together alders, a driftwood root wad, a skiff, two roofed shelters, a slide, sandbox and a vegetable garden.

“When you have a jungle gym, you play with it the same way every day, and what do you do when it snows? When you have different activities around the playground, you see kids interacting with it differently,” Baldwin said.

“The kids loved (the alder tunnel) from day one,” said local program director and teacher Karen Bryant. “And they took care of it. They hauled water for it in buckets – and wagons and even wheelbarrows. And they played inside it, even before the leaves started to sprout.”

Bryant said the playground has come a long way from its origins, when it was a flat lot covered with pea gravel. “It wasn’t a bad playground. It just wasn’t a good playground… Children need to be able to use their imaginations and incorporate rocks and leaves and … crawl over boulders and balance on driftwood.”

The playground was named for lead volunteer Pete Dohrn, a contractor who spent time the past two summers finding and placing materials to make it a reality. He contoured a tyke-sized hill, rebuilt an old, wooden skiff and added rocks and vegetation to create a landscaped effect.

Dohrn said he was inspired by a drawing created by playground architect Leon Smith and by Les Hostetler, a construction supervisor and endurance athlete who led several construction projects around Haines. Hostetler and Dave Weldon of Stickler Construction helped pour the playgound’s winding walk, Dohrn said.

“We had a cool plan for a project, and I was already hanging out here because my daughter was in the program. Taking on a big task didn’t seem like such a big deal back then. I was working with Les at the time and it wasn’t like I was going to build a school, and build a playground and run a marathon,” Dohrn said.

Dohrn said he likes taking spaces and making them interesting and fun. He was awarded a commemorative plaque from Baldwin for his efforts.

Judy Goenett, a regional manager for Head Start, said many local businesses and builders helped out on the project. “It’s not just that it takes a community to raise a child. It takes a community to build a playground.”

Visitor Judy Bryan was on hand for the dedication. Bryan, who worked for years in Texas schools, said she appreciated the boat and alders and other elements that were familiar parts of the Haines landscape. “I think it helps enhance the curriculum. There are so many things in here that you could talk (to students) about.”