Playground Project Builds Community Spirit

With fun touches like a triple slide and swinging bridge alongside a replica of the town square, this popular play area was created for the whole neighborhood to enjoy.

by Evelyn Beck


For several years, the parent group at Winskill Elementary in Lancaster, Wis., had wanted to build a new playground. The group, Friends of Winskill, planned to replace the existing equipment, which was two decades old and had deteriorated. By the time they had $19,000 saved, though, they no longer desired simple updates; now they wanted to create the stuff of children’s dreams. So they hired an architecture firm specializing in custom-designed, community-built playgrounds. By the time it was finished, it included whimsical climbing structures of every stripe—and the parent group had raised an additional $100,000 to pay for it and recruited 1,000 community volunteers to build it.

The reason for their success was a focus on making the project by the community, for the community. “First, we didn’t have a playground like this in the community,” says Winskill Principal Jamie Nutter. “Our town is split in half by the main road. There was a park on the east side, but on the west end, this end, there wasn’t really a lot of playground equipment except for the old equipment at the school. At Winskill, we had a nice spot that fulfilled the need of the town.”

Putting Plans Into Action

Led by two committed, visionary parents, the rest of the school’s parent volunteers organized into a dozen teams, each with a specific focus. First was the planning committee, which determined what other committees were needed, secured official permission to start the project, established a timeline, and recruited participants. The purchasing committee tracked donations and expenditures and kept the project on budget. The construction and design committee recruited the architects, solicited ideas from children, prepared the construction area, organized construction volunteers according to their talents, and supervised safety during construction.

One of the central visions for the playground was to incorporate aspects of the town of Lancaster. This included a wooden replica of the town’s century-old copper-and-glass dome. It’s part of a “town square” that also features a brightly painted fire station, jail, restaurant, and opera house. To celebrate the town’s farming roots, there are miniatures of farm animals around a barn, as well as a John Deere tractor, a nod to the real-life John Deere manufacturing plant about 30 miles away. (The tractor also hides one end of a “phone,” connected by hidden PVC tubing to a dinosaur’s mouth, so kids can communicate across the lot.)

Other features include a “spider web” (rubber-covered chains for climbing), slides that burst out of a rocket maze and down the side of the tractor, multiple balance beams, a sandbox, and a “tot lot” exclusively for younger children. For the musically inclined, there’s a stationary vertical xylophone with mallets attached to each steel pipe.

The special needs committee made sure the playground is barrier-free so wheelchairs can easily maneuver in and out.

Ideas came from students at Winskill as well as St. Clement, a nearby Catholic school. They proposed a suspended tire swing that would fit up to three kids at a time. “It’s one of the most used things in there,” says Donna Lensing, former treasurer of the parent group. Kids also wanted a bouncing bridge, so one was crafted out of rubber from a conveyor belt. “Students brainstormed different ideas,” Nutter says. “Their input was prioritized by them, depending on how many wanted different structures like a climbing wall. Then the designer drew the picture of what it would look like. There were 250 students shouting out different things. It was a neat process.”

Not every idea was viable. Some parents wanted an American flag on top of the courthouse dome, but the architecture company said that it would be unsafe. And the turretlike peaks on some structures had to be built at specific angles to keep kids from climbing on them.

The public relations committee promoted the project to encourage community participation and contributions. The head of the committee, an employee of the local newspaper, wrote a weekly column about the campaign’s progress. There were radio spots, an interview on public access television with the two chairpeople who originally envisioned the project, brochures sent home and to neighborhood businesses, and billboards. Local merchants touted involvement through their own signboards.

The fundraising committee decided not to sell anything without a direct link to the project. Donations were organized into six different categories: services (individual contributions of their labor skills, such as carpentry); equipment (borrowed items, such as tools, stoves, and tents, that would need to be returned); materials; food (for the workers during construction); money; and bricks, which would be branded with donors’ names and placed in the ground at the entrance to the playground.

Monetary contributions also provided a chance to underwrite specific components of the playground—such as $2,500 for the castle maze, $900 for the rocket maze, and $450 for the monkey bars—and brought in $50,000. Bricks were sold at three levels, ranging from $100 to $500 depending on size, raising another $50,000.

The food committee planned menus, prepared and served meals, and set up a dining tent. The child-care committee entertained up to 100 younger children at a time while their parents were working on construction. Distractions included a donated bouncing machine in the gym and large cardboard furniture boxes, which the kids painted and transformed into playhouses. Many of the kids also were able to assist with the construction by sanding wood, scrubbing tires, and rubbing screws with bars of soap to lubricate them.

The school liaison committee worked to inform and involve teachers as well as district officials. The children’s committee kept students involved with signmaking and a contest to name the playground. A kindergartner had the winning suggestion: Kids’ Courtyard.

Dealing With Challenges

Despite such incredible organization, the project suffered some setbacks. The architecture consultants were originally slated to fly in on Sept. 13, 2001—two days after America’s worst terrorist attack. They rescheduled their visit for a few weeks later when jets were flying again. But 9/11 made fundraising a greater challenge than it might have been as many people set aside money for the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations. Still, the project proceeded.

By May 2002, when the actual four-day construction session was scheduled, there was plenty of money and a lot of volunteers. The first day was great, full of sunshine. Then thunderstorms moved in, creating a cold and muddy work area for the other three days. Local farmers donated bales of hay to soak up the mud. As a result, says Sally Harper, former president of the Friends of Winskill, “we pulled in another aspect of the community we hadn’t gotten quite as involved from the beginning.” The food committee adjusted the menu to offer hot chocolate and coffee.

And then there were the unanticipated needs, such as cutting branches off some old oak trees so kids wouldn’t touch the limbs. But there were also unexpected pluses. As the work crews were cleaning up at the end of the project, some of the volunteers took the leftover lumber, screws, and nails and built six picnic tables and three trash receptacles. “That’s a reflection of the skill and enthusiasm of the group,” Harper says.

Fun for the Whole Community

Today, the 20,000-square-foot Kids’ Courtyard is a resource enjoyed by the broader community. At the school, 60 to 70 students at a time will be playing during recess. Once a year, the 4-year-old kindergarten teachers set up an obstacle course for a “fairy tale/nursery rhyme olympics.” Children imagine themselves as pirates and princesses, rescuing others from the dragon, climbing the tower/beanstalk, and avoiding the troll as they cross the bridge. “There’s a lot more enthusiasm at recess,” says teacher and parent group member Michelle Uppena. “We never have problems with kids out there making bad choices. They have enough to do. They can’t say ‘I’m bored.’ ”

During the school year, groups on field trips from neighboring districts or local daycares sometimes request blocks of time at the playground for a picnic, and Nutter is happy to oblige. During the summer, the playground, which sits between two soccer fields, is so well used that the city pays for a portable toilet.

Recognition of the playground’s importance to the neighborhood and the Friends of Winskill’s commitment came with the presentation of a local award to the parent group. And several dozen community members continue to gather annually to maintain their creation, sealing and painting the wood and replacing the wood chips.

“Going into it, we didn’t think we’d have enough people to help,” Lensing remembers, reflecting on the construction of the play area. “But they’d drive by and stop. They couldn’t resist.”

Tips for a Successful Playground Project

Find a leader with a vision. “The most challenging part is communicating the vision to get people to help,” says Winskill Elementary Principal Jamie Nutter. “People are the most important aspect of building.”

Don’t focus on the money. Winskill is a fairly small school in a small, rural town. Its families are not wealthy, and the school’s poverty rate is 31 percent. Even so, they had no trouble raising more than $100,000 once they promoted the project as a community playground. “Don’t worry about the money part right away,” Nutter says. “For us, that was actually the easy part.”

Don’t get discouraged. “It seemed like a very daunting project once we got into it,” says Donna Lensing, former treasurer of the Friends of Winskill. “And you’ll run into little bits of controversy—some people will think it’s too much money; they’ll say, ‘All we had was teeter-totters and slides when we were kids.’ But it was worth all the headaches because the reward was just huge. I still drive past and see how much fun the kids have.”

Expect the unexpected. At Winskill, the trauma of 9/11 threatened to derail that fall’s fundraising campaign, and bad weather made construction more of a challenge. But the parent group was committed enough—and flexible enough—to get the job done.


# Jamie S 2011-08-15 05:17
I went here about a year after it was built and I remember it as the best playground I have ever been at. I still look back at that day. We took my two year old nephew to play on the way back from visiting family. He loved it! By the time we left he was ready for a nap. I recommend this to anyone with younger kids! I can't wait to revisit!

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