Editor's note: Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time at Lewis & Clark Elementary.
Some things are up and some things are down at Lewis and Clark Elementary.
Up is the volume at recess, when hundreds of kids drain out of the school to play. And down is the number of disciplinary problems when those kids are inside to learn.
"We're seeing a huge decrease in behavior problems because everybody is busy," said Lewis and Clark fourth-grade teacher Kim O'Connor, as she watched over the kids at play during a recess on Monday. "It looks crazy, but I like to call it organized chaos."
The explanation for all this is as easy as a glide down a slide - Lewis and Clark has a new playground.
But not just any playground. Thanks to a two-year effort of school staff, parents, businesses and volunteers, the school is now home to a giant tower of ropes, a climbing wall, twirling cups and lots more for energetic kids to burn off their youthful exuberance twice a day.
It took thousands of volunteers hours, nearly $150,000, a lot of research and a great deal of community pride to make the playground a reality once the idea was hatched a couple years ago, said Anne Blanche Adams.
The Lewis and Clark Neighborhood Council and Missoula Parks and Recreation joined a staggeringly long list of local businesses and individuals who contributed to the finished project. (The fundraising is about 98 percent complete, but needs an additional $2,200. If you can help, call Meg Traci at 531-6092.)
Adams sat on the committee that met frequently to get the new playground equipment and natural additions like boulders and trees onto school grounds, replacing old swing sets and other staples of kiddie play that were more than a half-century old.
"It's neat to see it go from paper to fruition, and become the thing that we knew it would be," said Adams, who lobbied to get natural elements into the overall design.
In addition to 17 new trees of all types, giant boulders for sitting on and a grass mound to roll down, the new playground is equipped with cutting-edge playground equipment from KOMPAN, a German company that designs rides and slides with social and educational growth in mind.
There's "Spacenet," a tower of ropes and cables 15 feet high, which the children climb; there's the "Supernova," a spinning rubber loop that kids stand and run on; there are the two "Spinner Bowls," where students sit and spin in a giant cup; and then there's "The Glacier," which features a slide, climbing wall, a ladder and more.
This is not your grandpa's playground.
Architect Tony Moretti lives right across the street from Lewis and Clark, and got involved with the playground committee immediately.
"My two kids go to school there, so I'm very interested in what happens across the street," he said.
Moretti's architectural skills were needed and appreciated on the committee. The first thing you need in fundraising, he told the group, is a plan. You can't just go holding out your hand to the community.
"We don't just start asking for money," he said. "We need to come up with a design first."
Everybody agreed that the playground was in need not just of improvements, but a re-imagining from the ground up.
"The ongoing joke on the committee is that it's the same playground that most of the committee members played on," said Moretti.
Children were still playing on the old equipment, but not much.
"They got utilized to the degree that it's the only thing out there," Moretti said.
When students stormed the playground on the first day of school, teachers and administrators decided they needed a list of rules for them to abide by.
They decided better the next day. Children, it turns out, are quite adept at adopting their own rules of conduct, their own manner of play if they're in a safe environment.
"It's equipment that kids don't get bored with," said Adams. "There's a lot of cooperation and joint play."
Leaving children to their own devices is not a natural instinct for adults - at least until the adults watch the children play, said O'Connor.
"The whole idea is that this allows for free play and creative play," she said. "We didn't have to make a bunch of rules other than, ‘Be safe.' "
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.