Year-end Highlight: Highland Park Elementary
“I think that playgrounds should be renamed ‘research environments.’ This is what the children are doing so vigorously. They are not playing. They are finding out how the universe works.” – Buckminster Fuller, architect
In 2016, the Friends of Highland Park Elementary in West Seattle tasked Pomegranate Center to reimagine their asphalt playground into a place of nature, wonder, and exploration. More importantly, we were asked to convene a design process that involved the school’s community and students, recently ranked the second most diverse school of any age level in Washington State.
To help us with this effort, we invited teacher and landscape designer Jason Mederios of Outdoor Classroom Design and Leon Smith of Earthplay to join our team. Together, we crafted a student-centered process with classroom time engaging students in understanding and imagining their future playground through art, math, and science. Students mapped current schoolyard conditions and used math to calculate different area types; they painted and drew their ideal “play habitats” and then asked their parents what types of play they remembered as kids; and they spent time building models of their ideal play environment and discussed the results as a class.The students’ excitement naturally spilled over into their homes and increased parent involvement at our meetings, where they contributed their ideas and saw their children’s work.
Based on student and community input, our final design set a new precedent for natural play in the Seattle School District. The future playground incorporates natural play elements such as a log scramble, boulder climb, outdoor classroom areas, digging areas, rain gardens, and generous plantings of native species. The District agreed to treat our design as a pilot-project that, if successful, could eventually be replicated elsewhere.
The application of the Pomegranate Method is largely responsible for our success with this precedent-setting project. Our emphasis on a convening group and a design workshop, two components of our approach, allowed for community, design team, key stakeholders, and the District to establish shared goals and a relationship built on trust. Our community meeting was facilitated so that everyone had a chance to speak, and its participants walked away knowing they had made productive, meaningful, and positive contributions.
The Friends of Highland Park have been able to secure funds to build a first phase of the project, and have been working with the Pomegranate team on developing construction documents. Next year, the community will pitch in to rip up asphalt and create the playground they collectively envisioned.