A Dream Playground We Built Together

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By Karen Katz '74

From the Spring 2010 Caller
What lifts spirits more than watching children run, swing, jump, and bounce on the playground adjacent to the Fir Grove? Answer: Watching them and knowing that my family, colleagues, and friends—my community—had a hand in building the structure that provides a magical venue for boundless, expressive play.
With little prodding, I can recapture 15-yearold memories of Lark and Schauff (former headmaster) drilling bolts into place and chatting about the state of education while the playground underpinnings took shape around them. I picture volunteer co-chairs Leah Kemper and Jennifer Sammons cheerfully gathering the troops, with the aid of bullhorns, to announce the next task requiring attention. And I remember tiny preschool hands sanding the boards that hold the playground together. Those once-tiny hands typed college application essays this year.
For five days in October 1995, the campus was a flurry of activity when hundreds of school families busied themselves from dawn until past dark building the playground. Torrential rains early in the week triggered complications but did not dampen our spirits as we mucked about in ankle-deep mud chatting, laughing, working, learning, working more, and scooping out buckets of standing water.
The work was hard and the mood was festive as the community came together with a common purpose. Everyone had a job—moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, trustees, alumni, friends, and kids of all ages. First graders rubbed bolts with bars of soap to make it easier to screw them in. Middle Schoolers shoveled gravel into wheelbarrows and put their muscle into urging their heavy loads across rugged terrain to lay the drainage. Upper School students, now raising families of their own, toiled alongside adults sawing, routing, and sanding miles and miles of railings.
Before the building process even began, students and teachers had worked together to plan how our playground would reflect the campus aesthetic and our children’s imaginations. Excitement intensified as students worked together to come up with drawings and ideas. When a design group requested a castle tower, the plans were adjusted to include majestic spires. The children insisted on multiple tire swings, hidey-holes, and a spiral slide, and incorporating the beloved wooden boat. Community members suggested every feature of our grand playground.
Tremendous volunteer effort went into organizing work crews, each with a crew boss to direct traffic, assign tasks, and make sure people were properly trained. Skilled carpenters took novice builders under their wings. The mother of a newborn baby took charge of volunteer check-in. The cooks among us, and parents with restaurant connections, labored tirelessly to feed the hungry crews. The food was fantastic, and meals in the Barn were raucous breaks from physical exertion. Occasionally, someone would break into song. “If I had a hammer. . . ”
Dappled sun filtered through the Fir Grove when everyone came together at the end of the week to christen our beautiful new playground. Gathered there, we got that goose-bumpy sense that we were part of something bigger than ourselves. With a new pair of Catlin Gabel-blue scissors Lark cut a ribbon made from paper cutout hands: tiny preschool hands and great big grown-up hands. Children exploded onto the playground in a whirl of arms, legs, flying hair, and whoops of joy. We looked around at our enormous accomplishment, the children’s smiling faces, and each other, consumed by a powerful feeling of community.
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it is the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Robert Louis Stevenson
Karen Katz ’74 is Catlin Gabel School’s communications director. She has been at the school since 1986. Photos of 1995 playground construction by Karen Katz ’74 and Steve Bonini.