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Natural playground in Ross fits Montessori model of education

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Louis Raggiunti | McKnight Journal
Bob Zehmisch, art director for The Glen Montessori School in Ross Township, builds an outdoor chalkboard for the school's new playground Thursday, July 17, 2014, while Sophia Hogg (center), Isabela Pader, both 6, and teacher Susy Moran watch.
Louis Raggiunti | McKnight Journal
Sebastian Mross, 6, sands a picnic table Thursday, July 17, 2014, for the new playground at The Glen Montessori School in Ross Township.
Louis Raggiunti | McKnight Journal
Parent Josh Futrell builds a picnic table Thursday, July 17, 2014, for the new playground at The Glen Montessori School in Ross Township.
Louis Raggiunti | McKnight Journal
Parent Prasad Pathe; Uma Pathe, 4; and Eira Pathe, 2; sand a picnic table Thursday, July 17, 2014, for the new playground at The Glen Montessori School in Ross Township.
Louis Raggiunti | McKnight Journal
Parent Maria Mintz (left) and Bob Zehmisch, art director for The Glen Montessori School in Ross Township, build an outdoor chalkboard Thursday, July 17, 2014, for the school's new playground.
Louis Raggiunti | McKnight Journal
Parent Dan Bucchi builds a planter box Thursday, July 17, 2014, for the new playground at The Glen Montessori School in Ross Township.

Logs, gardens and other organic elements will make up a new natural playground at The Glen Montessori School in Ross Township.

Parent volunteers who raised money and organized build days are leading the project in an effort to redesign the school's outdoor area to inspire creative and independent play they fear some children are missing.

“I remember being (able to go) 10 blocks away as a third-grader,” said parent Amy Hogg, who has led the playground effort.

“Kids just don't get out and play as much as they did.”

Natural playgrounds — which are open play spaces that incorporate elements such as wood, rocks and changing topography rather than plastic and metal play structures — give children more space to run, jump, climb and explore, she said.

Sandy Kutchman, the school's assistant executive director, said the playground's design is compatible with the Montessori model of education, which encourages independent learning in a structured environment.

“A connection to nature is a part of Maria Montessori's philosophy,” said Kutchman, noting that the physician and educator who created the Montessori education model emphasized the importance of nature.

The Glen Montessori School has been in the former Perrysville Elementary School building since 2012 and has about 250 students from infants to sixth-graders enrolled.

Construction of the natural playground will continue through the next year.

Most of the playground has been landscaped, and it currently has a balance log, garden boxes, a log-lined sandbox and a dry river bed.

Parents plan to install a fort-building station; a small amphitheater with curtains; a giant checkerboard; a wetlands area; chalkboards; an area for art and music; and an infant area with amenities such as a patio, a log fort and a water feature.

“Kids will be running more from place to place because there's not that big central structure,” said Hogg, of Bellevue.

A grassy lot where children play sports and the existing playground structure will be preserved.

When Hogg first toured the school, she was pleased to hear that administrators were, like her, not satisfied with the school's playground, which at the time had a small play set and fenced-in, grassy lot. Together with four other families, other parent volunteers, local businesses and teachers, Hogg worked to raise $10,000 for the playground.

Kutchman said the playground was an area identified for improvement. But, she said, “this really wouldn't have come together without the parent committee.”

The natural playgrounds trend is growing across the country.

The Winchester Thurston School's North Hills campus in Hampton Township has a natural play area that was installed in 2008, said Laurie Vennes, director of the campus.

For example, logs, which Vennes described as “purposely fallen trees” that are set at different heights or angles, and stumps of different sizes provide opportunities for activities such as climbing, hide and seek, and make-believe, she said.

Ron King, president of Concord, N.H.-based Natural Playgrounds Co., specializes in the construction of natural playgrounds and estimates that his company builds about 20 each year.

The playgrounds help children develop more independence, imagination and motor skills than traditional play areas, he said, and children are calmer and more occupied in natural settings.

“We're not telling kids how to play,” King said. “You can play however you want to play in nature.”

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or kshea@tribweb.com.

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