According to Eric Gustafson, “schools are the heart of rural communities,” providing a place for all members of the town to come together. Eric should know. He lives in Yoncalla, a town of just over a thousand people in Douglas County and serves on the school board. Yoncalla’s preschool program operates in the town’s elementary school and has become an in important community resource and gathering place.
So when the time came to design a new playground for the preschool in December 2016, the first step was a listening session with parents, not a top-down directive from the administration about what the playground would look like. Jessica Smith, a substitute teacher for grades preK–6 and mother of a preschooler and second-grader, explained that the approach gave parents a sense of ownership: they went from believing that education is something that’s done to them to seeing it as something they can contribute to.
During the listening session, parents were asked what their hopes were for their children’s access to play equipment and their goals for outside play time. They were also asked to reflect on their own childhoods and what they remembered most about play. For participating parents, the process highlighted how much of their own playground memories focused on unstructured playtime. The listening sessions also helped them realize the value of a naturescape playground, which provides a more open-ended, hands-on learning environment than a traditionally designed play structure.
Once plans for the playground were finalized, work began in November of 2017. Eric secured roughly $10,000 in donated supplies and labor from Delta Sand &Gravel where he works as an estimator.
Parent involvement in bringing the new playground to life didn’t end with brainstorming at a listening session. A Yoncalla father who works on stream restoration in the area and whose children love venturing into the wilderness with him to play while he works helped to design the log structure in the playground. And a group of parents, including Jessica and her family, donated their time and construction skills to complete the playground last month.
Yoncalla parents, teachers, and administrators are all excited by the results of the community’s hard work, though watching the preschoolers explore their new naturescape, it’s hard to imagine anyone as enthusiastic as they are!