Community Builders Builds a Playground

When I was kid, Sundays had a different feeling than any other day of the week. Often, they started with Sunday School in the morning and transitioned into a family outing afterwards (hiking, seasonal festivals, apple picking). One Sunday it was Hands Across America. I was nine but can still vividly recall parts of the day. I remember piling into the car and driving to a big field to join hands with complete strangers. It was sunny and we were all happy to take part — smiling and laughing together.

After the event, I drew my experience over and over again. I still have a binder filled with these little drawings of people holding hands in a big line. When I think back, it was something so simple. No electronics or gear needed. I remember us all having a fun and happy time together on a sunny day. Knowing what I know now, I am sure there was an involved planning process behind creating that simple event. Their planning allowed me to have a happy memory with my family and a warmth in my heart.

When we were planning our first intergenerational Community Builders event, I never mentioned my experience with Hands Across America but we had a very similar goal. We wanted the day to bring people together and have them connect around a project they could feel good about. We wanted to give people the chance to create something that could bring others happiness and deepen their appreciation in life’s simple pleasures.

Working with Carrieanne Petrik-Huff, Engagement Manager and Thad Kubis, Volunteer Resource Coordinator, from the Trustees of Reservations, an idea was born. The staff at the Cobble had noticed a change in visitors after they installed a tire swing — families were staying longer and looked more relaxed. We decided to build a natural playground at Bartholomew’s Cobble. I remember instantly feeling excited about the idea of working to build a playground. We all noticed a similar enthusiasm when we shared the idea with others. As we planned the day, it was important to us that this project would have a clear beginning, middle and an end. We wanted whoever came to help build the playground to be able to actually play on it before they left at the end of the day. Like Hands Across America, the idea of play was a simple pleasure that many people could join in on that can benefit our community and environment. It seemed that Earth Day would be the perfect day to kick off this new program.

Our Community Builders after school program uses the history of the Berkshires as a guide to shape our virtual community in the video game of Minecraft. Both in the game and in real life there are opportunities to build, craft and explore while working in a group.

My Tuesday group of Community Builders at Undermountain Elementary love to think big. Their budding interest in helping the community has been a pleasure to witness. Their excitement about helping design and build the playground was contagious. For many, it was the deciding factor of why the wanted to be part of the Spring semester of Community Builders.

One rainy afternoon, we grabbed some ponchos, loaded into a van and headed to Bartholomew’s Cobble to plan. Between turns on the tire swing, they brainstormed ideas and thought about how it could be open to kids of all ages. Then they took inventory of the materials and sketched their ideas. We sent the completed designs to the grounds committee as a starting place for the final design.

After a week of cold, rain and (a little) snow, we were treated to a sunny, sixty-degree bluebird day on Sunday, April 22nd. The clock struck one and everyone was at their posts, wondering how many volunteers would show up. The first family came and then it was a steady flow of people of all ages. When they arrived, volunteers made a name tag and then were directed over to a Trustees crew member, in a purple shirt, so they could jump right into a project. First, people were digging holes and clearing sod. Then there were wheelbarrow trips to dump the sod. Others held shovels waiting for the wheelbarrows to return so they fill them up again. Between moments of greeting volunteers, I caught glimpses of people working harmoniously and happily. They looked engaged and relaxed–smiling and laughing as they worked.

When volunteers wanted to take a break, they could visit a make-your-own bug spray station. (It’s easy using witch hazel, geranium and rose essential oils!) When it came to snacks and drinks it was important to us to make this event as zero waste as possible. If volunteers got hungry, they could roast their own snack over the campfire. (This idea was inspired by Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux.) The snack station offered Organic Valley cheddar cheese, Equal Exchange bananas and apples from Samscott Farm. All could be spread on some Berkshire Mountain Bakery bread or gluten free rice crackers. Mason jars served double duty as water cups and “wrap” for a gift of seed packets and a coupon to the Co-op’s bulk department. People gleefully chose which seed packet they wanted to take home.

The jobs soon transitioned from digging to tending to the details of completion. A Trustees grounds crew member backed up a dump truck filled with sand for the sandbox. It was touching to see him thoughtfully ask two thrilled little girls to push the button that would dump the sand into the box. A team of rakers stood at the ready to smooth out the sand.

Before we knew it, the playground was complete! Kids dropped their tools and started to play. Some made a beeline for the tire tunnel, balancing their way across the top of it, leaping over to the jumping stumps, making their way across the balance beam and hopping off at the end, only to dash back over to the tire tunnel and do it all again. Others happily dug and built in the sandbox. While they played, adults spread the remaining wood chips. Little ones who were desperate to stay (just a little longer!) decorated the tire tunnel with sidewalk chalk. While her son played, a parent mentioned how much she enjoyed spending Earth Day doing something positive. In her experience, Earth Day events can often be focused on the negative or the depressing reality of the state of our environment. She left this event feeling uplifted.

Over fifty people participated in this building project, including six elementary Community Builders and their families. The trash we created barely made a dent in the one trash bag dedicated for the event.

My hope is that everyone who came will remember this Sunday in a similar way to how I remember my Hands Across America Sunday–spending time with their families in the sunshine and having fun.

It took a village to make this day a success. Thanks to Seward’s Tires who donated HUGE tractor tires for the tire tunnel. To the Trustees Grounds Crew who diligently worked up until the day of the event, prepping and pre-drilling all the wood pieces and more. A big thanks to the Berkshire Co-op Market’s Marketing Team for getting the word out! And much gratitude to you, the entire Co-op community whose support of Berkshire Co-op Market allows us to engage in these educational and outreach programs.