I arrived at one Vancouver school as administrator and was surprised that there was only one large climbing web for all of the students. The old wooden playground had already deteriorated and been removed long ago. The provincial government allowed applications from casino funds to be directed towards building school playgrounds. The Parent Advisory Committee was on the hook to do fundraising to raise most of the funds. It was a difficult neighbourhood to fundraise. Caring was plentiful. Cash was not. The PAC president, Sirtaj Ali, led the charge. Wednesday pizza day, casino funds and donations over the course of 7 years went towards two phases of the playground installation. Save-On Foods took on the community build of the second phase as a team building activity for staff. They arrived with huge numbers, a wealth of enthusiasm, bagged lunches for all of us and for the most part were finished in one day.
The kids, staff, VSB Grounds department and particularly the PAC were heavily involved in this project. We met. We strategized. We involved the staff and students in making recommendations, voting on the mock up from the Playground company they preferred and even the colours. And we celebrated when it was finally done. The fitness circuit built into it was a favourite with students, teachers and community members.
I was transferred to a new school site. As the daughter of a neurosurgeon, I grew up to be wary of safety infractions. As a very conscientious principal at a new school, I was on high alert for things that needed to be taken care of. My background knowledge with playgrounds helped me quickly identify, the playground needed some care. Some pieces just didn’t work. Regularly there was something else that was broken or falling apart. The process in the Vancouver School Board is to submit a SCHOOL DUDE for required work. This would send create the work order that would be submitted to the appropriate department without remaining on hold on the telephone. Great system. The people in the VSB Grounds Department are great. My Operating Engineer, Lin Low, and I would discuss the problems, tape off the NO PLAY zone and I would the submit the School Dude. Geoff Pearmain and the VSB Grounds crew did everything they could to try to repair the existing structure.
The playground was only ten years old but the PAC of the day had decided to go with a friend that built playgrounds. Shortly after the company was out of business, parts were unavailable and issues began to emerge. For this reason, the VSB now requires that four suppliers are approved with strong track records for quality and enduring reputation. The final straw for the playground came in May of my first year at the school when a chunk of rotting wood fell out of swing bridge, compromising the integrity of the entire bridge and access to the other structures. It also triggered a full safety inspection that concluded that the entire structure would need to be condemned.
This was not a surprise to me but an anticipated eventuality. My sister lives in Texas. One of their good friends sued her and her husband when their son hurt his leg on the slide in their backyard at a birthday party. I well understand the safety risk for students and the litigiousness of our North American context. If it wasn’t safe, I wanted it down. Students were quite pragmatic about the need to get a new playground and readily shifted their attention to what they would like to see in a new playground. One of the PAC parents went into high gear looking for funding options.
The provincial landscape had also shifted around funding school playgrounds. The Provincial Government allocated three years of funding to alleviate Parent Advisory Committees from the responsibility of replacing playgrounds and making them more accessible. This year, the BC government provided funding for 50 new or accessibility upgrades to playgrounds in 34 BC school districts. The Vancouver School Board was allowed to submit three applications to build playgrounds or make school playgrounds more accessible. Our school was a natural choice being the only school without a playground. We were allocated $105,000 and two other sites received funding to make them more accessible.
One of our PAC members, Leah Chapman, worked with me to provide the information required to complete, submit and successfully access a Federal accessibility grant of $14,383.00. Mona Hassaneen and Ossama Abdel-Hamid were able to access a Benevity Community Impact grant of $1,307.33. Their employer, Apple Inc., was willing to match their employee donations to an approved recipients as part of this program. I learned that the VSB has been approved as an acceptable charity and several employers have participated in these grants. The Hamber Foundation provided a donation for $1000.00 towards the cost of the accessible swing. Several of the members in our school community also made donations to ensure the playground build included all of the desired elements. Jen McCutcheon (PAC) and Andrea McEwen (teacher) worked with SwingTime and engaged with the school community to design a playground that would be fun, accessible and designed with our location in the Pacific Spirit Park in mind.
The year without a playground was not as painful as some people feared. This was partially due to the responsiveness of my Director of Instruction, Aaron Davis, to my request for funding for Community School Team staff at the school twice a week during lunch time. The CST staff came into the school and worked with my student leaders. They provided support to these students to develop their capacity to direct younger students to play possibilities and problem solve when conflicts arose. The CST staff also taught large group games and provided scaffolding for student leaders twice a week on the playground. They supported children in using the Buddy Bench and provided materials to engage students, including bubbles, chalk and skipping ropes.
The first year I arrived, I had prohibited parking on the Primary soccer field, and had the field reseeded during the summer. When this field was finally re-opened in fall 2018, the Kindergarten to Grade 3 students were delighted. Initially they would roll in the grass as well as play soccer on it. They loved having their own luscious, green, designated space. I worked out a deal with University Endowment Lands manager, Jonn Braman, to deal with our parking issues during school events and parents eventually got used to the parking prohibition on the field. Intermediate students had the two upper fields to spread out on. Soccer was a regular activity. Baseball, kickball, and other large group games were also very popular.
It was necessary to create a variety of spaces and activities for students to engage in over the course of the year. Three things were particularly successful. One area outside of the lunchroom and library was named The Reading-Writing Garden. A group of kids met with me to make mobiles to hang from the tree, hang bird feeders, reorganize flower pots, do some replanting and bring books to sit on the rocks or benches and read or write in journals. This same area was the meeting space for The Bird Buddies. I posted a poster in the library facing outside, with local birds that we could identify. When my Nanny Keenan’s opera glasses and my binoculars were in sufficiently high demand, I purchased a set of good quality binoculars. I taught binocular use and care. Once trained the students were allowed to take the binoculars beyond The Reading-Writing Garden and see if they could sight birds flying around us in the Pacific Spirit Park. Eventually I also got rain-proof books from Mountain Equipment Co-op so they could tally the birds they saw.
Special thanks to my Wild About Vancouver buddy, Megan Zeni @Roomtoplay, I set up a Mud Kitchen. I am a big fan of twitter for ideas @CarrieFroese. I had lots of ideas from both Megan, and twitterchats starting in England and Germany. I happened to share my wild and wonderful plans with Megan at one of our Wild About Vancouver @WildAboutVan planning meetings. Megan’s response:
“Or you could clean out your cupboards and throw the stuff in an old laundry basket and put it out for kids to play with.”
When the portable had been removed from our site during my first year at the school, the staff had made the decision to install an outdoor learning area. We had more garden boxes built installed and a big circle of twelve stones. It provided seating for a class of 30 during outdoor learning, lent itself to circle games, teaching Indigenous ways of knowing, and the teaching of directions and time. Incidently it was also a perfect place for The University Hill Elementary School Mud Kitchen. The rocks are perfect counter tops and appliances for concoctions of all sorts. The very favorite items in the Mud Kitchen were the measuring cups, sifters for the sand, spoons and to go coffee cups that have long ago lost their lids. I could be guaranteed a non-fat low foam latte if I ventured to the Mud Kitchen at recess. As items went walking, new donations came in. Wendy Yip, UBC president, Santa Ono’s wife, came for a visit in Spring. Afterwards we received not only a thank-you card, but also some donations for the Mud Kitchen. Thanks, Wendy!
In the Vancouver School Board, teachers do not do supervision duty at recess and lunch. I was fortunate to work with three very experienced playground supervisors. We met regularly to come up with pre-emptive solutions to emerging issues. When I was re-assigned to another school this Spring, the prevalent feeling was that we had developed a definite sense of team. I will certainly miss these ladies and the Education Assistants who were also regularly out on the playground supporting students at recess and lunch. I’m glad we were part of this journey together. Although we are delighted to have a playground, I’m sure that many of the other elements introduced will endure and add depth to the outdoor learning of the students. Hopefully this post will help for those of you asking for some direction when a new playground needs to be built.