Third-graders from Lowell Elementary School laughed and yelled as they pushed each other in swings, lay back in a spinning saucer and hung from a webbed tower at Fort Missoula Bella Vista playground during a field trip on Monday.

The school-wide field trip focused on gaining insight into the students' preferences for playground equipment, which Missoula Parks and Recreation and Missoula County Public Schools will incorporate as they begin designing a new playground for Lowell.

Lowell Principal Barbara Frank said the current playground is outdated, with various parts in need of repairs and designated as off-limits for students.

“We’re kind of putting Band-Aid fixes on the structure until we can replace it,” Frank said.

The playground at Lowell is an exception to the many Missoula County Public Schools buildings and structures that are under construction funded by the Smart Schools 2020 bonds. While the land is owned by the district, the city owns most of the playground equipment.

Missoula Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler called the park “one of the most unique and best partnerships in the entire community.”

“It is, by agreement, a public park and a school playground, so one of the things with the redesign is that we’re trying to create a situation so that when kids are out for recess, there will still be park amenities that day cares or preschoolers can enjoy with their families,” Gaukler said.

Gaukler said students will be directly involved with the process from beginning to end.

On Monday, each grade at Lowell visited three different Missoula playgrounds, with the school visiting a total of six. After visiting each park, students filled out a form to share what they liked and disliked about each playground.

Niko House, a third-grader visiting Bella Vista Park, said he hopes the new playground will be bigger and include more play equipment.

“I really like the rope diamond,” House said in reference of the spiderweb structure. “It’s very fun to climb on. And the spinny thing.”

Ike Vogan, another third-grader, also said he liked the web.

Gaukler said she can already tell some of the favorites among students. “So far, I think what I’ve seen is the most popular is the climber, fitness equipment, the gliders, the spinner, and they love the basket swings because two to four of them can sit in the basket swings together,” Gaukler said. “In third grade, they start getting pretty social. They’re liking things where they're playing together.”

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Gaukler said that students will be working with the Parks and Recreation landscape architect team to design the playground. In addition to suggesting features they would like the new playground to have, a student working group will provide feedback to designers as they make more concrete plans.

Teachers and staff that accompanied students on the field trip also provided feedback based on their observations. Gaulker said the observers’ forms focused on play values and lifetime learning skills.

“It’s looking at ‘Are the kids learning taking turns? Were they social? Were they playing by themselves?’ and cooperative conflict resolution,” Gaulker said. “Kids' play is their work. What they’re learning here is all those social skills and social cues. And they’re burning a lot of energy which is really great, not just for their bodies, but for their brains and their mental health.”

Following the field trip, Parks and Rec and MCPS will collect the information from the field trip. Gaulker said they will also assess the current playground equipment to see if there’s anything they can retain.

Gaukler expects the project to cost anywhere between $250,000 to $400,000. “A lot will depend on what the kids want, what their vision is,” she said.

Because the park is not entirely owned by MCPS, project leaders will need to find donors and organize fundraisers to pay for the project.

“We’ll be looking for partnerships, major sponsors and donors,” Frank said. “Once we get several of those, we’ll be looking at all kinds of fundraisers and things.”

Gaulker said the project also provides an opportunity to make the park a safer environment for students. In the past, there have been occasional concerns about the public using the park during the school day, as there are certain spots that are obstructed from teachers’ view.

“As we design any new facility, we’ll pay really careful attention to something called CPTED, crime prevention through environmental design,” Gaulker said, pointing out that she had a clear line of sight from where she stood at Bella Vista Park.

She said the new playground will be designed so teachers and staff can see kids from every vantage point.

MCPS communications director Hatton Littman said the district is excited to be involved in the process for designing and building the new playground.

“It’s a great resource for kids and the community,” Littman said. “As we design, we want to make sure we’re not just thinking about updating and replacing equipment that is outdated, but also thinking about how to make sure we’re meeting 21st century design standards and making it accessible for all students.”

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