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Dynamic Recreation for First U.S. Public Elementary School

John Ryther, ASLA, Senior Principal, Director, ICON parks design (IPD)

A coiled snake with the alphabet painted on its back is the main pavement graphic. Hopscotch graphics have been downsized for smaller bodies and benches (DuMor Site Furnishings) provided for all to rest.

The Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, Mass. was the first public elementary school in America. Today, Mather is an inner-city school in which over half of the students do not speak English at home, and over 20 percent have special needs.

Mather Elementary School has the distinction of being the first public elementary school in North America. The first building (1639) was a one-room schoolhouse. Each morning the children recite the Mather School pledge:

I must work hard today
Get smarter in every way
Helped by my teacher, my family and my friends
If I make some mistakes
I have what it takes
To keep trying 'till I really succeed.

Mather is one of over 88 public schoolyards in Boston transformed from barren asphalt lots into dynamic centers of recreation, learning and community life. The initiative is funded by the City of Boston and the Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative, with administrative and fiscal support from the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation.

The Mather Elementary School site plan by John Ryther, ASLA, ICON Parks Design.

ICON parks design has been involved with seven of the 88 public schoolyard improvement projects, and proud that many of its ideas have been incorporated. One example is the creation of a miniature wetland/rain garden at the Haley School, an idea once thought unacceptable. The outdoor classrooms provide a glimpse of nature, something more affluent children take for granted.

Steep Driveway Access
Flooding at the main entrance, a steep slope buses could not navigate in icy conditions and a second play equipment area for the youngest age group were the major problems to resolve at Mather Elementary. Initially, the driveway access problems were considered outside the BSI goals for recreation and outdoor classroom improvements, that is, until ICON proposed creating the outdoor classroom at the base of the hill. To achieve the required handicapped accessibility to the new classroom, it was necessary to add a six-ft. high cement block wall and raise the grades, including at the end of the parking lot and bus access route. Now, with the improvements paid for under the BSI's outdoor classroom program, the bus access is no longer a problem in winter.

Granite curb corners make up a stepped seating area that worked with the site's slope, retaining soil, terracing the garden and minimizing the height of the concrete block wall that lies beyond. Cedar logs set on end and boulders create additional seating. Because of potential erosion issues, bituminous pavement was used for the curvilinear paths to provide handicapped access. Additional routes have stepping stones and boulders that invite children to sit and examine the plants and bugs in the garden.

As part of the design improvements, rainwater is collected from the end of the parking lot and piped to a natural ledge outcrop that disperses the water into an urban wild, minimizing the runoff entering the city's street drainage. A second pipe leading from the drainage structure allows the school to redirect some of the runoff into the outdoor classroom's rain garden. A simple PVC irrigation valve provides the control for that pipe. The valve is closed during the winter when salts are used on the parking lot. The outdoor classroom design followed the design requirements set forth in the BSI design guidelines, but it achieved much more by resolving a well-documented access problem for the school's buses and preventing children from having to disembark on the slippery hill when the buses could not make the grade.

The leaf gateway was design by John Ryther, ASLA, a senior principal with ICON Parks Design. The leaves of the gateway plant are 3/8-inch steel plate and painted a light green; the stems are schedule 40 galvanized steel pipe that vary from 2 to 4-inch in diameter and painted a dark green. The stems (poles) are welded to 3/8-inch steel gusset plates. The tallest stem rises 14 feet and 4 3/4 inches.

Main Entrance Courtyard
The community had installed a playground in the school's main entrance courtyard, but had encountered problems with excavating ledge rock, brick and concrete, which greatly compromised playground installation and child safety. Some areas had not been excavated to required depths, with play equipment posts shortened and extra concrete placed to secure the structures. A central drain was covered with filter fabric and a layer of wood fiber placed as safety surfacing. Short trench drains had been installed outside the play area, but ponding occurred along the walkways even with the slightest rain. The problem was that concrete around one of the play equipment posts blocked the outlet pipe, and two pipes connecting the trench drains to the catch basin brought in enough fiber to block the structure's remaining volume.

A review of the fiber surfacing identified several areas where the resilient surfacing depth was not adequate for fall heights, and could not be corrected by simply adding more material. Some locations had massive concrete footings placed at the design elevation of the finished safety surface! In one location the concrete mass spread six feet beyond the posts directly beneath an overhead play apparatus. It was necessarry to remove several truckloads of concrete and brick, reinstall the play equipment in proper alignment and install new poured-in-place rubber surfacing to complete the courtyard drainage improvements. The courtyard sidewalks have been trouble free ever since.

The three-post armature, constructed of pressure treated timber and armed with rigging points for pulleys, lends a strong vertical element to the garden. This structure survived two large trees toppling upon it during a hurricane shortly after the classroom was constructed. The armature is a teaching tool that supports a white board, thermometers, wind vane and flag, along with samples of metal used in magnetic discovery experiments. The raised student plantings beds have sliding wood windows to view the soil.

The Outdoor Classrooms
o Gateway: ICON creates gateways that range from traditional high-end Victorian-style wrought iron works of art, to modern, fanciful ones that bend and twist. For the Mather's gateway ICON mimicked plants that were powerful, simple and easily fabricated, a gateway large enough to be seen from afar, a portal to a magical outdoor space.

o Gathering and Seating Area: Granite curb corners make up a stepped seating area that worked with the site's slope, retaining soil, terracing the garden and minimizing the height of the concrete block wall that lies beyond. Cedar logs set on end and boulders create additional seating.

o Circulation and Pathways: To avoid potential erosion issues, and provide handicapped access, the curvilinear paths are bituminous pavement. There are also stepping stone paths and boulders for children to sit and examine plants and bugs.

o Urban Meadow: Large oaks just outside the classroom cast shade on this area most of the day. It is planted with indigenous grasses and wild flowers.

o Sample Woodland: Large oak trees grace the ledge slopes, and to the north, black locusts dot a grassy knoll.

o Planting Beds: The plantings beds are raised and have side windows with sliding wood covers to shelter them from the light and encourage insect activity and root growth when not being inspected by young scientists.

Mather Elementary School enrolls 610 students in grades K1-5. The school faculty insisted on separating the K-1 and K-2 playground from the playground equipment (Playworld Systems) for the older children.

o Lab and Experiment Area: A wide table doubles as a retaining wall in front of the elevated seating, a space for teaching and scientific experiments. Beneath the table are valves that allow the garden's water supply to drain by gravity for winterization.

o The Armature with Teaching Tools: ICON's heavy-handed design of the armature lends a strong vertical element. Constructed of pressure treated timber and armed to the teeth with rigging points for pulleys, this structure has survived two large trees toppling upon it during a hurricane. The armature supports a white board, thermometers, wind vane and flag along with samples of metal used in magnetic discovery experiments.

o Rooftop Garden: A small storage shed with a green roof was included in the design. The utility shed is made of pressure treated timbers that allow the shed to retain earth on the backside. The retained earth and large boulders provide easy access to the green roof by the youngest children. On the side of the green roof structure is a bronze plaque in memory of Marie Conley, a crossing guard who sacrificed herself to save a child.

o Wet Meadow or Rain Garden: The water feature, a pond, from which life springs, was important to include in the outdoor classrooms, as much for the discovery of insects and frogs as for storm management discussions. The rain gardens have boulder stepping-stones to allow children to pass through without disturbing the vegetation, or to sit and contemplate the surroundings.

o New Play Area for the Youngest Age Group: ICON separated the youngest age groups from the older ones for safety and ability reasons. With today's handicapped accessible play environments, even a toddler can make it to the uppermost deck without assistance, but the school wanted a separate playground for the K-1 and K-2 children. The teachers even gave up precious parking spots to achieve that. A basketball hoop is set low for younger children, and a small running track was modified to provide straight-line sprint races. Other sidewalk graphics include a 10-quare for working with numbers and standard hopscotch courts. The Mather Schoolyard project was completed in 2010. By then, Julie Stone and her team had created a wonderful guidebook for the outdoor classrooms that fit the science curriculum. ICON parks design wants to acknowledge all the students, faculty, parents and concerned citizens that helped make the project a success. Emily Cox, principal; Karyn Stranberg, assistant principal; AnnMarie Buckley, science specialist; Bethey Verrano, BELL community partner; Martha Kempe, art teacher; AnaMarija Frankic, professor U/Mass Boston; Helen Gollobin, librarian; Stacey Hazelton, parent council; Anna Baez, parent; Lesley Bornstein, reading recovery specialist.

Outside of the play areas, modifications to the playground include the addition of a basketball hoop set low for younger children, and modifications to a small running track to allow straight-line sprint races. Other sidewalk graphics include a 10 square for working with numbers, and standard hopscotch courts.

Project Team
Design Firm: ICON Parks Design, Dorchester, Mass.
Designers: John Ryther, ASLA, and Dan Parenti
Contractor: Cer-Trom Construction Corp., 3 Kayla Circle, Plymouth, Mass.

Basketball Backboard: TrueBounce, 56 Conduit Street, New Bedford, Mass.
Color Pavement Surfacing: Novaplay, Nova Sports U.S.A., Inc., Milford, Mass.
Concrete Block Retaining Wall System: Versa-Lok, Oakdale, Minn.
Curb Stops: Rockstop, The Scituate Companies, Scituate, Mass.
Game Tables, Trash Receptacles and Benches: DuMor, Inc., Mifflintown, Pa.
Leaf Gateway: Design John Ryther, ASLA, fabrication by Dedham Fence, Inc. Providence St., Boston
Play Equipment: Playworld Systems, local rep. Ultiplay Parks and Playgrounds, Inc., Uxbridge, Mass.
Poured-in-Place Rubber Play Surfacing: Child Safe Products, Inc., Amityville, New York
Trench Drains: KlassikDrain by ACO Drain, Chardon, Ohio

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October 17, 2019, 6:23 am PDT

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