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In one long, rainy weekend, Grants Pass builds a playground.

In one long, rainy weekend, Grants Pass builds a playground

"Draw your dream playground." That assignment, put to children at Highland Elementary School in Grants Pass, Oregon, was more than a hypothetical exercise. Eight months later, the same youngsters were clambering on a 16,000-square-foot playground they'd helped design and build--complete with castle, dragon, maze, spaceship, and five different slides. Thanks to an innovative architect, generous donations of material from area businesses, and an army of 1,200 volunteers (from a town of 15,000), their dreams had come true.

Planning, raising money (about $25,000), and materials procurement took nearly a year, but the playground was built in one long--and rainy--weekend. Much of the credit goes to project architect Robert Leathers of Ithaca, New York, who has been helping communities around the country design and build their own playgrounds for 17 years (this was his third in the West, with others being planned).

His formula begins with a design day, when he meets with committees of children and adults to hammer out a schematic plan drawing, presenting it at a general meeting that same evening. The community then begins the months-long process of procuring dollars and materials and planning the construction, aided by detailed lists from the architect.

In Grants Pass, construction began on a Thursday morning and ended that Sunday evening--with a joyous charge by hundreds of eager youngsters.

Leathers' techniques for getting the most out of volunteers could help any commonity organization. And at a time when volunteer-built play equipment is being scrutinized closely, his are models of safety as well as of design innovation.

Using volunteers: challenge,

but don't entrap. And feed them

The playground's design evolved directly from drawings by youngsters and discussions with them, their teachers, and parents; early involvement of volunteers helped sustain their enthusiasm through to construction.

A tough but short four-day building blitz works better than a series of weekends. "People really want to help," Leathers says, "but they don't want to be trapped into a long commitment."

People lent more than 100 hammers, 48 circular saws, 19 drills, and other tools. Each was checked in ahead of time, labeled, and kept under lock and key when not in use. The few tools that were damaged were replaced with donated funds. This way, every available helper way kept busy--even those who didn't own tools.

This architect knew what makes a army run: volunteer cooks prepared lunches and dinners for four days; youngsters roamed the site with cut-up fruit to offer tired builders as a quick snack. Child care was available throughout construction.

Safety: look a gift horse in the mouth

Most of the building materials were donated, but they weren't seconds; Leathers didn't hesitate to send a truckload of lumber back to the mill for replaning when it didn't meet his exacting standards. Savings were made by using voluntter labor, not substandard materials.

He worried about the possible toxicity of pressure-treated Douglas fir lumber that had been procured. Though tests confirmed it met safety standards, the lumber was nonetheless redried and then sealed.

Rather than sand underfoot, leathers used type 1-A washed, screened stone; it drains well, is as soft as sand, doesn't attract cats, isn't tracked into school, and is harmless if thrown.

Design: safe, accessible, but not boring

Raised planters were built, both a protect the landscaping and to help funnel the children into the playground at safe points of entry.

A third of the playground was made wheelchair-accessible; children in wheelchairs can negotiate the castle maze, drive the fantasy race car, reach overhead rings and bars, and swing on a flat platform. The idea for handicapped accessibility came from parents; children supplied the designs.
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Title Annotation:community action in Grants Pass, Oregon
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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