Facility Profile - October 2009
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A Greener Place to Play

Crowley Park/Emerson Elementary School in La Crosse, Wis.


hat happens when a high-achieving elementary school collaborates with an environmentally progressive parks and recreation department on a new playground? Well, if you're talking about Emerson Elementary School and the La Crosse Parks and Recreation Department in La Crosse, Wis., great things happen—for kids and the planet.

Emerson Elementary School is situated along the bluffs of the Mississippi River in picturesque La Crosse. The school has 345 students in preschool through fifth grade, an active parent-teacher organization and dedicated teachers who are proud of their students' achievements. But they also had an unsafe playground—a crumbling wooden structure that was showing its age.

In 2007, Principal Regina Siegel took several of her students to a La Crosse park board meeting to unveil their designs for a new playstructure. It's rather unusual for an elementary school to share playground dreams with a park board, but in this case the presentation was a necessity because their playground was actually part of Crowley Park, a three-acre parcel of land owned and managed by the city. Clearly, this was not going to be a standard elementary school project because in addition to the desires of the children, the school administrators, the PE instructor and the PTO, this playground would also have to serve the needs of the city, the parks and recreation department and a very active neighborhood association. In other cities this confluence of viewpoints might have been a prescription for disaster, but La Crosse saw it as an opportunity to achieve something special.

"When I first came seven years ago, I was concerned about the school's playstructure," Siegel said. "This is such a nice school, and I kept seeing children coming in with injuries. I knew we could do better than this."

And so Siegel initiated the process by gathering information from several manufacturers and sharing it with the PTO, the PE instructor and the children. By the time they presented their ideas to the park board, they had a strong concept for their new playground.

"Connie Dahman, our occupational therapist, had looked at every play event and made sure that it would be appealing to specific groups of children," Siegel said. "We also included the views of our physical education teacher, who wanted a playsystem that would challenge kids and could function as an obstacle course of sorts. And one of the neatest parts of our playground was that we had student input. We invited the children to draw pictures of the play events that they most wanted, which gave them a sense of ownership such as 'this is my slide, my climbing pole.'"

It was only a short time after their park board meeting that Steve Carlyon, director of parks and recreation for the city, asked the school if they had considered the environmental aspects of their new playsystem. Siegel admits that this was not something they had even considered.

"We hadn't really thought about sustainability, or how our playsystem was to be manufactured, but when the city indicated that it was one of their primary objectives we understood," Siegel said. "With the name Emerson, we try to follow in the footsteps of Ralph Waldo Emerson in taking care of our environment, and we have an amazing location along the bluffs that reinforces that philosophy. Steve had a very holistic view of the playground, and he helped us to see it in the same way."

For Carlyon, the responsibilities of environmental stewardship extend to every corner of every park. Carlyon believed that installing a new playground in Crowley Park allowed them to rethink everything, including the park's landscape design, lighting, walkways, even its fertilizing and watering practices. At the center of his philosophy is The Natural Step, a Swedish sustainability framework that the parks and recreation department, the city and even the county had adopted the previous year to help guide them toward a more sustainable course. It had become the core element of every design, construction and purchasing decision, and it would play a major role in shaping this shared playground.