Design day at Tisbury School

(From left) Brianna Buchanan, Solvig Sayre, and Hannah Marlin use glue, cardboard, and their brains to piece together their model. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Eleni Collins - June 15, 2006

Instead of their usual math, English, and science routine, Tisbury school eighth-graders spent last Wednesday using clay, twigs, Popsicle sticks, and rocks to design models for a new natural playground for their town.

Ron King, the principal playgrounds designer of The Natural Playgrounds Company, met with the students for an all-day affair that began with a lecture, followed with a hands-on model-making project, and concluded with a public discussion to generate more ideas for playground design.

Tashmoo Park, located at the end of Lake Street in Vineyard Haven, is the parcel of land scheduled for the remodeling. Currently, there are tennis courts and open space occupying the 2.5-acre park, which abuts another 2-acre parcel of wooded land with beach access. This latter piece of land is protected by conservation restriction, so it will remain as is. The remodeling is made possible by The Tashmoo Park Organization, an 18-month-old group that was formed specifically for the improvement of this underutilized land, said organization member Tara Simmons of Tisbury.

Tracy Devine puts the finishing touches on her gazebo.

During Design Day in the Tisbury school auditorium, Tracy Devine created a gazebo out of sticks and flower leaves, with tiny pieces of wood circling the bottom for benches, in just 30 minutes.

The main feature of 14-year-old Josh Crowther's model was a large rock. "It's a big rock for people to climb on, like the one in Central Park," he said. Other more common features in the models were walkways, ponds, and grass labyrinths.

The group of Cole Maciel, Troy Small, and John Barlosky, all 14, designed a small house for their park. It would be used to rent out fishing equipment, because the park will have a trail through the woods that leads down to the water. Another unique feature was a covered bridge with guardrails because the designer, Ryan Welty, 14, had the safety of young children in mind.

Mr. King has designed approximately 20 natural playgrounds all over the United States at community centers, Montessori schools, and high schools. The parks are unique to what the individual community wants. For example, a fitness-driven New Hampshire school designed a running trail along the perimeter of their natural playground. "These are not parks, but play environments, but they are park-like," said Mr. King.

Director Ron King admires the work of Troy Small.

Natural playgrounds have many perks that standard plastic and metal playgrounds lack, such as easier maintenance, the use of environmentally friendly materials, and are generally a safer environment, he added. "We interviewed 4,000 children, and they said they did not like the standard equipment. But, they'll use it if it's there," Mr. King said. "It is when kids get bored, and then accidents start to happen. These playgrounds are always changing, and there is always something new to discover."

Mr. King said he was unsure when construction will begin, mainly because of fundraising efforts. For the model-building project, donations were made from the Polly Hill Arboretum, Susan Silva, both of West Tisbury, and Morrice Florist, Inc. of Vineyard Haven.

Eleni Collins who lives in Oak Bluffs is a May graduate of Boston University and a summer intern for The Times.