Loosening Up: Breaking Boundaries for Creative Play in Schoolyards, Part 3

by Eric Higbee, ASLA, Jason Medeiros, and Leon Smith

Students play with the loose parts at Hawthorne Elementary’s creative playspace. / image: Eric Higbee

Education and Creativity at Hawthorne Elementary’s STEAM Playspace

Part 3: Design, Implementation, and Lessons Learned

Welcome to Part 3 of “Loosening Up,” the story of transforming Hawthorne Elementary’s asphalt schoolyard into a community-curated, nature-based, loose parts playground. Our first post focused on our student and community engagement process, and our second post focused on navigating bureaucratic resistance to loose parts and nature play. In this third installment, we cover the final design, implementation, and lessons learned.

The Design and the Build

Community engagement and negotiation with the School District produced a vision for Hawthorne’s playspace that weaves a tapestry of loose-parts play, native plants, stormwater capture, learning gardens, an outdoor classroom, and creative play.

A first phase was built in 2019, including natural spaces, a creative play area, and a bioretention swale. A second phase, completed in 2020, expanded the creative play area and replaced aging playground equipment. As of June 2022, the third phase and completion of the vision is still waiting to be fulfilled.

The loose parts and creative play area is a focal point of the playground. Set amongst groups of native plants and trees, the space holds a collection of moveable stumps, logs, and “cookies” for kids to move, stack, manipulate, and more. To our knowledge, this is one of the only contemporary public schools in the U.S. to embrace loose parts as an intentional part of its playground design.

We simplified our selection of loose-part materials and sizes to expedite the School District’s approval. The main criteria was size: pieces small enough to be manipulated by 1-3 students, but not so small that they could be easily thrown or broken.

Students play with the loose parts at Hawthorne’s creative playspace during morning drop-off. / image: Eric Higbee

We settled on wood-based loose parts for several reasons. Wood fits with the natural themes and aesthetics of the playground vision. Wood was cheap and easy to source from local backyards and businesses. Finally, volunteer work parties can cut, sand, and treat wooden parts on a continuing basis—a wonderful community-building exercise!

Like the loose parts, volunteers installed significant portions of the playground. While a contractor completed the heavy lifting—removing asphalt, installing drainage, pouring concrete, etc.—community members placed wood chips and mulch, installed shrubs and trees, and built fencing. Each of the major work parties attracted more than 100 people of all ages and abilities, generating a strong sense of community-ownership.

Playworkers, Culture, and Safety

Traditional adventure playgrounds typically utilize trained ‘playworkers’ to support children’s play and help provide the safe container within which risky play can happen. However, the introduction of additional playworker responsibilities was a challenge and a culture-shift for hardworking Hawthorne staff, who often used recess as a time to relax their vigilance and oversight of the children.

To help, we conducted an hour-long training for teachers and staff on introductory playwork principles and the concepts of risk management. We also organized a group of parents to support teachers at recess with additional supervision.

Lastly, an existing Hawthorne staff “safety committee” took on monitoring and review of the new playground. This provided an official channel within the school to document and address loose parts issues. Leaders of the parent volunteer group also joined the staff at these meetings.

Students play with the loose parts at Hawthorne Elementary’s creative playspace. / image: Eric Higbee

Stalled Momentum and Construction

Unfortunately, the playscape vision remains incomplete. Phase Three still needs to be funded, and the Phase Two scope was trimmed significantly. Thankfully, the loose parts area is installed, but major design elements, like completing the “river,” are incomplete.

While the pandemic has played a role in slowing the progress, the biggest challenges to completion are escalating construction costs and limited funding. Traditionally, the Seattle School District does not fund community-driven improvement projects, though Hawthorne was able to leverage some capital improvement funding to replace older equipment. Much of the initial funding came from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, whose Large Project Fund is now defunct. Fundraising hundreds of thousands of dollars for construction is too heavy a lift for a group of parent volunteers.

Volunteer burnout has also been a factor. The PTA-leadership team for the playground was led by a small group of passionate volunteers who stewarded the project for the first several years, but who eventually lost their capacity due to a variety of factors, including COVID-19 and their students aging out of the school. Unfortunately, the leadership team struggled to build a bench of successors who could step up to take over the work.

Diversity and Engagement

Hawthorne is the third most diverse school of any age level in Washington State, with large proportions of Black, Asian, and Hispanic/Latinx students. However, despite dedicated efforts, participation in community meetings and work parties was overwhelmingly white, though diversity did improve markedly over the course of the project.

One of the key deficiencies was the lack of diversity of the steering team and PTA. In our experience, this is one of the most crucial variables for a successful and inclusive engagement process. Steering team members provide a critical role guiding outreach efforts and inviting people to participate. Without a diverse steering team, a project faces significant hurdles for inclusion. Despite encouragement from the design team, project leaders were unable to bridge this gap.

However, working with students directly in the classroom proved our most powerful strategy to engage all groups in the school community. It was the only venue that fully guaranteed participation from all of Hawthorne’s social and economic diversity.

Staff, parents, and students were all involved with aspects of the playground’s construction, including planting. / images: Friends of Hawthorne PTA

An evaluation of student engagement can be found here: Hawthorne STEAM Playspace: Student Engagement Lessons Learned.

In the end, our observation was that energy generated in classroom activities was carried home by the students, and eventually brought larger, more diverse crowds to our community events.

Maintenance and Management Challenges

The playground was closed to the public and received little to no maintenance or use during the 12 months of COVID-19-induced remote schooling in Seattle. While this kept small feet from trampling the new plants, it also stalled much of the momentum for monitoring, improving, and maintaining the play areas.

Children are tough on playground environments. At Hawthorne, they have been impressively brutal on the loose parts and the temporary fencing protecting the plants. Pre-pandemic, parents and teachers were paying attention to emerging play behaviors and engaged in active conversations with the students about the limits on acceptable behavior on the new playground.

For example, a small group of students figured out that they could break apart the wood ‘cookies’ by smashing them onto the rocks, resulting in smaller throwable fragments of wood. Pre-COVID-19, the cookie smashing was discussed, monitored, and stopped. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the communication lines around playground stewardship have closed, and the teachers—already stretched thin by teaching during COVID-19—are not able to monitor in the same way they did before.

Parent volunteers for recess and participation in the Safety Committee have also gone by the wayside.

A Rekindling | Next Steps

With COVID-19 restrictions lifting, signs of stewardship and engagement with the playground are re-emerging. Regular work parties to clean up the playground are being organized, and new parent-leaders are being cultivated. It remains to be seen if the PTA will be able to generate the momentum and funding to complete construction of the Improvement Plan. But we hope that the loose parts and natural play will continue to be an integral part of the experience at Hawthorne, and serve as an inspiration to be replicated elsewhere.

Community work parties had high turnout from parents, staff, and students, even on rainy days. / image: Friends of Hawthorne PTA

We thank you for following us these last three posts. Please reach out if you have questions or comments. Wishing you loose and creative play wherever life may take you…

Eric Higbee, PLA, ASLA, of Convene PLLC is a landscape architect specializing in community-driven place making.

Jason Medeiros of Outdoor Classroom Design is a science teacher and landscape designer.

Leon Smith of Puddletown Playworks is a free play advocate and playscape designer.

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