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Image: Jason Dewey

Remember in third grade when you fried the backs of your legs so badly on the metal slide of death that you could barely walk? Or the time when you and your friends piled onto the teeter-totter, flouting theories of spatial relations and gravity over a sizzling sea of asphalt? Yes, playgrounds forge indelible memories. And while merry-go-rounds and metal slides may have been replaced by Eurobungies and climbing walls, the importance of playgrounds has not diminished. Ask a child about her school day, and her response will likely center on recess. 

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Image: Jason Dewey

Even in the Rockies, where the ultimate playground—nature—beckons to be explored, organized play remains vital for children. “Kids need engaging and structured areas in which to play,” says Aspen Elementary School principal Doreen Goldyn. “Playing teaches life skills. Recess is really about learning to communicate, negotiate, and solve problems.”

Playgrounds can represent problem-solving exercises for adults, too. Consider the one at the Aspen Elementary School, which was renovated last year. Improvements to the playground were a necessity, driven primarily by dangerous conditions caused by a lack of drainage. Because school funds were limited, PTO presidents Lynne Seeman and Stacey Greene led a volunteer community effort to complete the project. Board of Education member Elizabeth Parker calls it “a terrific example of how a dedicated and creative parent group can be the catalyst and engine for a much-needed school resource.” 

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Image: Jason Dewey

Gyles Thornely, principal of Basalt-based Connect One Design, donated more than 700 hours of landscape architecture services. And while Thornely took great care to ensure the site’s safety, it was the design side that proved most satisfying. “Playground design is ruled by such a fanatical attention to safety issues that designers are hesitant to design specific structures,” he says. “They just pick from the nearest catalog.”  In this case, however, Thornely chose to incorporate elements specific to the Aspen environment. Since catalogs don’t include mining shacks and “history of the earth” walkways, Thornely had to design them himself—a challenge he readily accepted.

“We wanted to create an extension of the indoor classroom, where play could go hand-in-hand with elements that are part of Aspen’s history and natural environment,” he says.  Instead of shiny metallic slides and merry-go-rounds, the playground includes rock walls, a fallen log, and lots of trees. “Some kids love to dig in the sand or hide under the troll bridge.  Others love organized games,” he says. “We still have the traditional swings [twenty of them] and monkey bars, but we’ve mixed it up a bit so as to address all the imaginative and creative ways that children play.”

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