Play, the all-natural way
Jack Huber, 6, balanced on a piece of wood, a one-person seesaw of sorts, and shifted his weight back and forth. The front of the wood shot up and dropped down as Jack jumped into different positions, as if he were surfing.
Jack was in a small meadow at the Leonard Schine Preserve and accompanied by his father, Ted. The two had come out to the preserve after hearing about the new natural playground, which just opened the day before.
"I like it," said Jack, a kindergartner at Saugatuck Elementary School, Westport. "I like everything [about the playground]."
Getting to the playground involves a short walk in the woods past squirrels, chipmunks and the occasional blue jay. Some small signs point the way to the clearing and to more trails. A rustic archway, made from sticks and larger pieces of wood, welcome visitors once they find the tucked-away playground.
There are no benches, metal poles or plastic slides at the playground. Instead, there's a tower made of cedar, a fallen tree for sitting, a miniature tree house populated with pint-sized elves made from pinecones, among other attractions. Nearly everything is made from materials that had been found in the 20-acre preserve on Glendinning Place off of Weston Road, Westport.
The Aspetuck Land Trust manages the Leonard Schine Preserve and 1,700 acres of land in Westport, Weston, Fairfield and Easton. Trails for hiking are common at the preserves, but there hasn't been anything like the playground before.
On Saturday, the grand opening of the playground was teeming with kids, Brant said. His twin 4-year-olds gave their stamp of approval to the unconventional attractions.
"I am very pleased with the final result," Brant said. "It was all built by volunteers. Of course, these things take a lot more time than you think they're going to take."
Construction began about two months ago and inspiration for the project for the project came from the University of Minnesota. The school manages the 1,000-acre Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which includes a natural playground. A member of the Aspetuck Land Trust who hailed from the area told Brant about what she had seen, and the idea started from there.
The impetus behind the project stems from the Aspetuck Land Trust's goal to do more community outreach and have kids become more active.
"Today's children have access to many wonders of technology, ever increasing their awareness of the world they live in," said Chris Thomas, an Aspetuck board member, in a news release. "Unfortunately, a downside to the use of technology is a phenomenon that experts are calling the `nature deficit disorder.'"
A playground fused with nature was seen as an effective way to tackle this problem. After talking to some people at the arboretum, design plans were purchased from the university, but the volunteers also improvised a bit. The seesaw, for example, was made on the fly.
John Hamlin, of Easton, was one of the volunteers who helped out.
"The plans were well followed," he said. "We tweaked them as we went to basically get what we wanted to see there."
Hamlin was tasked with a few projects, such as the gate at the entrance, and said it was "a lot of fun" to work with the other volunteers.
He's pleased with how the playground turned, are so are his kids. Both of them, a one year old and a four year old, enjoyed playing at the grand opening. So much so, in fact, that Hamlin is considering building a smaller natural playground in his yard.
While the materials used in construction don't have the same permanence of hard plastic or metal, red cedar stays naturally preserved for longer than other types of wood, so the park is expected to remain for a long time.
"A long, long, long, long time," Brant said.