Cornwall Sixth-Graders Design, Then Pay For, Their Own 'Natural' Playground

Dec 22, 2016

When most people think of a school playground, swings, slides and seesaws come to mind. But a group of students in Cornwall had a different idea: a playground full of sticks, stumps, twine and hay so kids of all ages could build and create together.

After months of planning and fundraising, they recently cut the ribbon on their new space, and started to play.

In September, the sixth-grade class at Bingham Memorial School in Cornwall and their teacher, Emily Hoyler, attended an event called "Cultivating Pathways to Sustainability" at Shelburne Farms.

“It’s a workshop to learn about how we can save our earth, and how we can do that,” said Nora Wooten, a student in Hoyler's class. “At the end of the meeting they asked us how we were going to do it, for our goal.”

One student’s goal was to work on building community.

Not long after, in a meeting with the principal, students brought up the sixth-grade fort, which used to be in the woods just off the school's playground with standard fixed equipment.

“[The principal] said, 'Yeah, we can’t do that, we shut it down.' But then we were like, 'What if we built our own space, what if we built a new thing?'" said Wooten. "She said if we could get it through the school board and the playground committee, sure, we can do it. And that’s how the loose-parts playground came to be."

Teacher Emily Hoyler suggested a "loose-parts" playground as an alternative that would still allow the students to build something together.

A loose-parts playground is a space that makes natural materials available for kids to construct whatever they imagine. The idea is fairly common in early education programs, but less so in elementary school settings.

“It’s supposed to help the younger kids play with older kids,” explained sixth-grader Eli Marks, and bring the community together.

"It's supposed to help the younger kids play with older kids.” — Eli Marks, Bingham Memorial School sixth-grader

Sixth-graders Jack Wallace and Carter Lee attended a school board meeting to present the idea.

“We hadn’t started yet," Wallace said. "We hadn’t even raised any money. We came with our slideshow and they gave use some feedback."

The class organized a kid's obstacle course fundraiser called “Moving for Materials,” which raised the $400 needed for construction.

“We bought the landscaping fabric, which is what we put under the wood chips, and we also got the wood chips,” said student Carter Lee.

Lee also serves on the school’s playground committee and helped get that group to approve the idea. Another student called a local business to get donations.

“Wood pallets, boards, stumps and wood cookies,” said student Layne Chant, explaining what kinds of materials are available for building. There are also hay bales, sticks and twine.

The idea is for kids to build with the materials available. “It could be teepees or models of houses,” said student Naomi Brightman.

Students at Bingham Memorial School in Cornwall work together to build a teepee in their new loose-parts playground.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

On the day of the opening, the class presented the idea to the rest of the school at the morning meeting, and came up with some rules, the most important of which is to be safe.

As soon as the students cut the ribbon, younger kids ran in and grabbed the nearest stump or wood cookie and started stacking.

“I think it’s going really well,” said Brightman, a member of the sixth-grade class. “It’s cool how a lot of people are doing a lot of different things, like using the trees that are already here.”

“It’s really wonderful to see it pay off,” said teacher Emily Hoyler. “It’s finally coming alive, and I think it’s going to leave a lasting legacy for these kids.”

“What I learned from this process is if you put your mind to something, you can do it,” said student Shawn Woodhouse.