Over the years, if there's been a consistent complaint about Woodland Park's outdoor facilities, other than the overall size of our space (which has been corrected by our recent move to the center of the universe) it's been something along the lines of, "But where do the kids climb?" This has been especially true since the spring of 2010 when we, as a community, rethought what we wanted from our outdoor space, electing to move in the direction of what could be described as a "loose parts," or "adventure," or "naturalistic" model. We've made a conscious effort to stop referring to it as a playground, and instead reframe our outdoor experiences as taking place in a constantly evolving "outdoor classroom."
This, however, has flown in the face of what many of us have come to expect from the kinds of places we set aside for children to play. In fact, the centerpiece of just about every playground in America now is what we call the "climber," a collection of ladders, stairways, bridges and slides mashed together into a tidy, compact unit, beneath which is generally a smooth spongy surface that supposedly protects bones and skin in the case of falls. There's nothing like that in our outdoor space and I imagine that if one's child is "a little monkey," our outdoor classroom with its sandpit, workbench, art tables, garden, windmill stage, boat, and unicycle merry-go-round might not look like it has a lot of offer by way of climbing.
Of course, up in a corner, partially in the sand pit, are these "monkey bars" made from the last vestiges of an A-frame based climbing set we once owned . . .
. . . and the swing set has a trapeze bar . . .
. . . both of which get occasional use, but most of our "climbing" opportunities, our chances to work on balance, grip, and risk-taking involving elevation, come while doing something else. Our two level sand pit, for instance, challenges children without ever announcing itself as a "climber."
And, of course, there is the concrete slope that must be mastered in order to enter our secret hideouts among the lilacs.
And if that's too much for you, there is the smaller slope that divides the upper and lower portions of the outdoor classroom to practice until you're ready for the bigger climb.
The sandpit itself, is made from huge cedar rounds, which make a wonderful, uneven walkway that requires balancing skills as you move from one place to another.
In fact, like in the real world, there is barely a flat, even spot in the place. You must always be aware of where your feet and hands are going as you play here.
Even when observing the bee we recently caught in a bug box, our bodies must adjust to the uneven surface that mimics the real world so much better than those artificially smooth and spongy surfaces.
Climbing, in fact, being small like we are, is incorporated into almost everything we do. For instance, sometimes we need to get up on milk crates in order to get the leverage we need to work with tools at the workbench.
Or maybe you'll have to climb ladders to get at the coffee filter streamers we're spray painting to make a rainbow room.
In the outdoor classroom, we climb all the time.
But unlike those tidy "climbers" at the bullseye of every playground, a challenge for a time, mastered, then left behind in the quest for something new, in the outdoor classroom climbing is simply what we do while we're doing something else.