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Learning Landscape Program Makes Playgrounds Fun & (gasp) Educational!

editor, Stephen Kelly






Design Concepts, a landscape architectural firm, has been the prime consultant on the design and construction supervision of 13 Learning Landscape Alliance (LLA) playgrounds for the Denver Public Schools, including Ellis Elementary, pictured here. The projects have varied from 2-5 acres and in construction budgets from $350,000 to $550,000. The play equipment installed on 12 of these 13 LLA playgrounds is by Playworld Systems. Southmoor Elementary used Landscape Structures. The landscape architects note that Children's Playstructures, the local rep. for Playworld Systems, has been a big supporter of LLA, including working with the school district to have the equipment partially installed by volunteers at some schools.


Since 2002, Design Concepts, a landscape architecture and planning firm in Lafayette, Colo., Boulder County, has been the prime consultant on the design and construction supervision of 13 Learning Landscape Alliance (LLA) playgrounds for the Denver Public School (DPS) system. LLA is an entrepreneurial and community-based association of public and private interests to strengthen Denver's public elementary schools and their surrounding neighborhoods by raising money to design elementary school playgrounds in the city's 16 "focus" (poorest) neighborhoods.

These projects offer public park elements and create social gathering places aimed at reconnecting communities to their children's schools. The playgrounds incorporate cultural and historic aspects of each neighborhood, emphasizing participatory learning while increasing recreational opportunities and much needed green space for these urban kids. The design elements are aimed at helping children learn about numbers, nature, astronomy, geology, climate and plants. LLA has transformed over 50 underused DPS school playgrounds into innovative play and learning spaces.






The rock climbing wall at Ellis Elementary is an example of the fun and challenging elements that have transformed the Denver elementary playgrounds from the uninspiring 1960 model.


It all began with the Denver's Bromwell Elementary School in 1993 when parents, staff, faculty, neighbors and the elementary students collaborated with Prof. Lois Brink, an associate professor in landscape architecture at the University of Colorado at Denver (UCD), to redesign the school's playground. It took six years to complete, but proved that the necessary funds could be raised, a design planned and a playground installed.

Today, Brink's team has amassed more than $23 million for these innovative playgrounds. In 2005, Prof. Brink received the "Outstanding Educator in Landscape Architecture" award from the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture for her work with the DPS.






Ellis Elementary has students and staff from over 30 countries. In collaboration with Andy Dufford of Chevo Studios, Design Concepts developed the concept for the site as an earth globe, and thus the colorful playpad striping with geography features.


In 2005, Kerry White, an associate with Design Concepts and adjunct honorarium instructor, taught Prof. Brink's Learning Landscape Design Development studio while Prof. Brink began research on the post-occupancy behaviors of the elementary students on the new playgrounds. White again taught the studio for the fall 2006 semester with artist Andy Dufford of Chevo Studios as co-instructor. White has assisted with the design development of 16 additional schools through her teaching.

The renovation of the first 16 Learning Landscape playgrounds was through city, district and private funding. The Denver voters then approved a $310 million general obligation bond in 2003 to complete additional playground renovations. DPS's former executive director of facility management, Mike Langley, feels that the bond passed in large part due to the public's support of the Learning Landscape Alliance, even though only a small portion of the bond, $10 million, was designated for playground renovations.






BEFORE







Carson Elementary--before and after. Most sites prior to renovation had pea gravel playfields, old and cracking asphalt with basic court games and dated play equipment--some from the original development 50 years ago. The designs for each site have cultural and social relevance to each school and neighborhood. The more traditional program elements for the new playgrounds include play apparatus areas, asphalt court games (basketball, tetherball, four-square and hopscotch), a backstop and sodded and irrigated multi-use fields.


How It Works

Students in the UCD landscape architecture masters program begin the projects by completing master plans and design development packages for each school with direct input and involvement from the schools. The submitting LA firm contributes time to the university by participating in studio desk critiques and in jury presentations. DPS staff, local artists, product manufacturers and fabricators then step in and are often involved through the project's completion.

The projects are then awarded to local landscape architecture firms to take the projects through the construction document and construction phases. The input and involvement of each school continues, including that of staff, teachers, the PTA, and neighborhood and community groups.






It's volunteer build day at Edison Elementary. Colorado grown bluegrass with four improved varieties was chosen for durability for athletics and general wear by the active elementary students and residents on the weekends. Denver gets many days of sun and the playfields are used throughout the year. The volunteers are also planting shade, ornamental and evergreen trees.


To promote collaboration and continuity of the design team, Design Concepts, when possible, hires the UCD graduate students as interns to continue work on their individual school projects. Additional involvement comes from volunteer groups who provide construction labor and maintenance on projects during and after construction. The design also facilitates at least one volunteer build day for each school.

The general contractor is also considered an important part of the design team. Contractors are consulted on construction methods and means to facilitate successful projects.

Construction is made complicated by a short construction schedule (mid-May to August), unique design features and volunteer work projects that the contractor also participates in.






ABOVE & BELOW: The Learning Landscape playground at Ellis Elementary has two curving geography bands striped with traffic paint on the asphalt playpad, representing the latitude and longitude of Denver. A bronze marker at their intersection (between the main playground and the shelter) has an image of the school and its geographic coordinates. From here, other markers on the bands are laid out to scale so students can walk from "Ellis" south 46 feet to the Easter Island marker and discover this historic island is located 4,627 miles from Denver (site scale is 12" = 100 miles). Play pad striping incorporates major cities from around the world, continents, oceans and mountain ranges.

On the intermediate playground (top), a youth stands atop one of the sculpted boulders. The play surfacing for that playground and the swing area is engineered wood fiber. The primary playpit has poured-in-place rubber play surfacing (by Child's Play).

Metal banner poles (upper right of top photo) are also installed on the schools sites, then plain canvas banners are given to the school and the students work with the art teacher or a community artist to paint the banners.

The seatwall planter includes ornamental grasses, perennials, gro-low sumac and imperial locust trees.








Merit Award

The Denver Public Schools Learning Landscape program, with Design Concepts as the prime consultant and landscape architect, earned a Merit award for design (in the over $500,000 construction budget category) at the Colorado ASLA Chapter's 2006 Professional Design Awards.

Sites and Sizes

The projects vary from 2-5 acres and in construction budgets from $350,000 to $550,000. Most sites prior to renovation had pea gravel playfields, cracked asphalt with basic court games and dated play equipment--some as old as 50 years when the school was first built. The more traditional program elements for the new playgrounds include play apparatus areas, asphalt court games (basketball, tetherball, four-square and hopscotch), a backstop, and sodded and irrigated multi-use fields. Running tracks are often incorporated. To meet DPS standards, the play apparatus areas are separated by age group into kindergarten/early childhood education (sand play areas here), primary and intermediate areas. All play areas are designed for accessibility and safety, with the elements focused on the physical needs of children.






The McMeen Elementary stone amphitheater for outdoor class and performances has a custom shade shelter (Classic Recreation) designed by the landscape architects in-house. Colored and gray concrete and asphalt paving spirals out into the main concrete walk from the gateway. The adjacent play area has poured-in-place rubber play surfacing.


Educational Elements

A description of Ellis Elementary helps illustrate the educational elements typical in the new playgrounds. The Ellis students and staff represent over 30 countries. In collaboration with Andy Dufford of Chevo Studios, Design Concepts developed the concept for the site as an earth globe to celebrate this diversity. Two curving "geography bands" go across the playpad, representing the latitude and longitude of Denver. At the intersection of the bands is a bronze marker with an image of the school and its geographic coordinates. Two boulder globes are also at this intersection, each cut in half--one illustrating Denver's latitude; the other, the longitude. Points of geographic interests are sandblasted on the cut planes to highlight points around the world that share the same latitude and longitude with Ellis Elementary. These points also correspond to bronze markers along the geography bands. The markers and points describe the location (Madrid) of a famous painting (Las Meninas), the Great Wall of China and even a giant crab (Sea of Japan). The markers are scaled. A student walking from the center of the Ellis marker 46 feet south will be on the Easter Island marker and discover the isle is 4,627 miles from Denver (site scale is 12" = 100 miles). Chevo Studios custom fabricated and installed the markers and globe boulders. Other site features include a geography garden with an outdoor classroom, a globe climbing boulder and a colorful shade shelter that sports international flags.

Play pad striping incorporates major cities from around the world, continents, oceans and mountain ranges. Shaded picnic tables, seat boulders and seatwalls provide seating for school and neighborhood gatherings.






Traylor Elementary has a focus on math and science. The scored concrete represents the concept of geometric expansion. The scoring is done in 1x1 panels, then 2x2, 4x4 and 8x8. Math teaches take classes here to talk about geometric expansion.


Whiteman Elementary has a nature and ecology theme, with animal footprints pressed into the concrete walks, four-square games that have icons and names of leaves, seasons, and rocks to differentiate each of the squares and a butterfly bench designed and fabricated by an artists. Students seated on the bench in the butterfly garden appear to have sprouted wings and attenae. The shade shelter has three giant leaves for the roof canopy. Edison has a new Shakespeare performance amphitheater; Carson, a Fibonacci series inspired outdoor classroom; Southmoor, bilingual-labeled site elements; and Mitchell, a human sundial. Design Concepts has also worked on Remington, Castro, Columbine, Kaiser, Knapp, Traylor and McMeen Elementary schools.

While the DPS playground design focuses on outdoor play and outdoor learning for the kids, they also welcome public use of the school sites during nonschool hours. Cultivated and habitat gardens, art projects, amphitheaters, performances stages, math and science walks, poetry in the landscape and geography features are among the attractions.






The custom community gateways, fabricated by Central Denver Ironworks, welcomes neighbors into the Learning Landscape. From left is depicted the Denver skyline, then the U.S. with Denver, Colo. marked by a star, then Earth as seen from space. The surfacing here is brushed colored concrete.


Volunteer Day

The Learning Landscape projects continue to include a volunteer build day in which students, teachers, parents, DPS staff and the landscape architects gather to lay sod and plant trees. It's a day that transforms the look of the site for the better in just a few hours and everyone gains appreciation for the investment being made into the school and the community.






Two granite boulder "globes" were cut and polished for the Ellis playground--one cut vertically to express latitudes, the other cut horizontally to show longitudes. Sandblasted and stained to these cut planes are geographic sites that share the same latitude or longitude as Ellis. Chevo Studios custom fabricated and installed the markers and globe boulders.


Keeping Up Appearances

Like most public school districts, DPS has limited resources and personnel to maintain their 73 elementary schools. It can't do it all and the special features of the Learning Landscape projects pose the potential for increased maintenance needs. DPS maintains the basic outlines of the court games, for instance, but asks the schools to maintain the colorful playpad striping. The schools commit during the design phase to the color and receive the striping templates once construction is complete. Community groups help during spring and fall clean-ups and specialty gardens are often maintained by local gardening groups, such as the Denver Urban Gardens program. To keep maintenance costs down, Design Concepts has researched and specified synthetic turf for play surfacing to replace the engineered wood fiber the district typically used, which required regular raking and replenishing.






The sculptured shell seats at McMeen Elementary are designed and fabricate by Chevo Studios from Colorado buff sandstone from local quarries. The words in the concrete are excerpts from the "McMeen River Rhyme," which describes students exploring the waters south of the school at Cherry Creek, then the Platte River across many states to the Missouri to the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico. Chevo Studios placed a rubber masking on the concrete, sandblasted the lettering, then hand stained it.


How to Spell Success

The success of the Learning Landscape projects is based on enthusiasm for education and aesthetics, while being pragmatic about recreation, safety and maintenance. Learning Landscape playgrounds combine play and learning painlessly, while reconnecting communities to their public elementary schools with innovative amenities and much needed greenspace in urban neighborhoods. According to a report by the Center for Research Strategies the Learning Landscape program has resulted in a 78 percent reduction in student delinquency and increase learning productivity. Schools also report higher test scores, fewer discipline problems and less vandalism and graffiti.











Ellis Elementary purchased the brick for the shelter via a fundraiser. The brick columns match the school building. The international flags and custom detailing (Classic Recreation of Arizona) support the "discovery and geography" theme. Shaded picnic tables (Wabash Valley), seat boulders and seatwalls provide seating for school and neighborhood gatherings.


Learning Landscape

The Learning Landscape Alliance (LLA) is an entrepreneurial and community-based association of public and private interests to strengthen Denver's public elementary schools and their neighborhoods by raising funds to design elementary school playgrounds in the city's 16 poorest neighborhoods. The playgrounds offer public park elements and create social gathering places to help connect communities and schools. The playgrounds incorporate cultural and historic aspects of each neighborhood, emphasizing participatory learning, while increasing recreational opportunities and much needed green space for urban kids. The design elements help children learn about numbers, nature, astronomy, geology, climate and plants. LLA has transformed over 50 underused DPS school playgrounds into innovative play and learning spaces.






The Traylor Elementary playground reflects Denver's snowy winter, with some kids opting to stay out of the snow, congregating beneath another metal shade shelter designed in-house by the landscape architects. The sandblasted and stained geometric rings in the colored concrete are again part of the school's math theme.


Learning Landscape Alliance Accomplishments:

  • 46 built Learning Landscapes
  • $25 million raised for capital improvements
  • 8,000+ community volunteers
  • 18,000 students served
  • 250,000 city residents served in 62 Denver County neighborhoods
  • 200+ AmeriCorps volunteers
  • 150+ private donors
  • 35 volunteer partnership organizations
  • $300,000 research funding granted
  • $75,000 granted for technical assistance program











The Southmoor Elementary playpad is synthetic turf, with play structures by Landscape Structures.


About the Firm

Design Concepts
Community & Landscape Architects
Lafayette, Colo.
www.dcla.net

Design Concepts was founded in 1981 by Robby Layton and Axel Bishop. Carol Henry joined them as a principal in 1999. All three principals remain active in the firm, which has grown to 18 employees. Their discipline is strictly landscape architecture and planning, with most projects located in Colorado. The focus is on creating people spaces, and thus, "Creating Community" is the firm's vision statement.

Featured Projects: Elementary schools in the Denver Public Schools' Learning Landscape program.

Const. Budget: Elementary schools: Carson $356,000; Southmoor $528,000; Whiteman $421,000; Edison $410,000; Mitchell $340,000; Ellis $548,600; McMeen $630,400; Kaiser $138,100; Knapp $73,300; Traylor $442,300

Total Budget: $3,887,700











Stephen Kelly, LASN editor


Playground In Time

As a former Colorado kid who spent his elementary years (1956-62) at the Wilmont Woods school in the little mountain community of Evergreen, about 26 miles southwest of Denver, I reflect back on our school "playground," versus the innovative and engaging playgrounds of this feature. Reading about Whiteman Elementary's colorful, artistic four-square courts triggers a memory. Wilmont Woods also had a couple of four-square courts--in the school's parking lot! This was the school's only asphalt area. It was obviously not a thoughtful location for a playing court, as retrieving an errant ball could get you hit by a car. Our lack of play facilities prompted our "gym" teacher to organize a dodge ball game, lining kids up with their backs to the school's brick building in a kind of firing squad formation. And fired on we were, at very close range. Detached retina, anyone?

There was a long, steep hill rising up behind the school and grading for some future construction project had created two terraces. During recess, we ascended to these dirt areas via long flights of stairs. On the lower terrace was a tetherball pole and a metal slide we used to rub max paper on to make slippery. On the upper terrace was a basketball hoop on the edge of the downhill side. If you missed the backboard, the ball would roll down to the lower terrace, then over the edge and down about 100 more yards.

When it snowed, we would compact a trail from the top terrace and slide on our backs (head pointed downhill) using our jackets as sleds.

At one point, a big pile of dirt shaped something like a cinder cone, a remnant of the grading, was the focus of our play. King of the Hill was the game, whose simple premise was to get to the top of the hill and stay as long as you could before being knocked off. The pushing and shoving invariably led to some hard feelings. One of my first fist fights was during this game, goaded and cheered by a circle of frenzied children, whom I would later recognized when I read Lord of the Flies. There was no supervision on our dirt playground. The fight was short.

I "won," but remember feeling distinctly bad for the other kid. Later fights were not as successful. A fellow named "Smokey," by far the biggest kid in school, once insisted on grabbing my lunch bag as I walked home. I punched him in the nose, purely an unthinking, reflexive action. Shocked to see I had bloodied his nose, I was soon on the ground, where he grabbed my legs, split them apart like a wishbone and left me lying in the snow. I literally crawled up a hill to get home and was in a thigh-high cast for six weeks.

The only other playground experience I recall there was teasing and chasing girls ... never too early to start.

After I finished grade school, my family moved to Palo Alto, Calif., just a half-hour drive south of San Fancisco. The junior high there had baseball and football fields; acres and acres of grass; basketball courts, tennis courts ... and a swimming pool with diving boards!

When I was in eight grade, I visited ol' Evergreen for a few days and spent one day at the junior high there to catch up with my grade school chums. The school had no grass or sports courts. I believe it had a dirt baseball field. At recess, I was amazed to suddenly find myself in the middle of a rock fight. The boys were chucking rocks at one another in the big dirt area in front of the school! Not pebbles, but rocks large enough to seriously hurt someone! Ah, how quickly I'd forgotten. No, the kids weren't fighting, they were just "playing" with what was at hand.



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October 20, 2019, 5:40 pm PDT

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