At Armatage, a peaceful playground

Later this year, a giant, colorful U.S. map and grids for math problems and word play games will be spray-painted on a freshly paved "Peaceful Playground" at Armatage Community and Montessori School, 2501 W. 56th St.

Armatage’s existing playground looks more like the pockmarked driveway it also is. Potholes and major water drainage buckle the battered surface. The wear-and-tear is partly due to kids’ tough play and Minnesota’s freeze-thaw cycle. However, cars that regularly roll through deepen the crevices and create safety risks for students.

Reducing the human stress is what $80,000 in grant money ($55,000 from the school district’s foundation and $25,000 from the Armatage Neighborhood Association) is supposed to buy.

The school will pad its noisy lunchroom to reduce clatter and convert a nearby "quiet lunchroom," where kids can go to decompress. Instead of the cafeteria clatter some kids say distressed them, they can eat and listen to soothing music.

The "Peaceful Playground" will make sure when kids get physical, they don’t get nuts. Developed to relieve recess rumpus with educational games that productively focus kids’ abundant energies, school officials and parents hope the playground will be more fun, too.

Trees planted for this year’s Arbor Day celebration will form a natural barrier surrounding the playground. A new fence will replace an old one comprised of leftover poles no longer connected by chain links. The grant money will also help purchase some equipment such as jump ropes and footballs, as well as storage space for the Minneapolis Kids afterschool program, which shares the playground.

Parents and school officials are optimistic that the "peaceful" curriculum will cut down on injuries, reduce bullying, strengthen motor skills, bring classroom lessons outdoors and encourage community participation.

All on a sheet of newly laid, freshly painted blacktop.

The ‘peaceful’ concept

Armatage’s new playground extends the Montessori program’s values of creating self-learners who make good choices, said PTA President Margaret Richardson, who proposed the idea. The antibullying component blends into an all-school "Responsive Classrooms" initiative, devised to identify problems, diffuse clashes and teach personal responsibility, she noted.

Students typically entertain themselves during their daily 15-minute recess. Usually, they chase each other in "tag," throw footballs at one another and occasionally get into accidents or arguments.

"When there are 100 kids playing outside, things can get rowdy," said Associate Educator Debbie Hayden, who supervised recess one afternoon in mid-March. "It’s tough for the little kids to find something to do. This gives them more options."

Although Armatage has foursquare courts, a basketball hoop, footballs and jump ropes, recess still mainly involves a lot of running around, Hayden said, as she stood in the cold.

Hayden said that she was eager for the "Peaceful Playground" because some kids struggle to find something to do during the break, especially in the winter. During snowy winters, kids can slide down the frosty hills, make snow-angels or construct forts. But since there wasn’t much snow and some areas of the blacktop were also icy, students had slim pickings this year.

Hayden said a "Peaceful Playground" offered a hardware solution.

Richardson only just received a map of the school’s yard and is still discussing implementation with local architects and engineers. In the coming months, she will gather over 100 volunteers to paint game stencils onto the refurbished surface.

When the playground is installed, kids will stand inside of a spray-painted circle and spell out their names, solve math problems or play with shapes. They’ll learn about geography, math and language.

Armatage Neighborhood Association (ANA) board member Peggy Rasmussen, whose daughter attends Armatage, said that the "Peaceful Playground" pitch dovetailed nicely with the neighborhood’s earlier efforts to fund school projects.

"We were enthusiastic about it. We were making park and field improvements, and one of the areas that had always been a problem was the blacktop. It’s an eyesore, too. Many of us [in ANA] are parents, and we were interested because it seeks to create activities that mediate childhood aggression or … give children appropriate vehicles to learn."

Rasmussen said that the $80,000 effort would help the school and community in the long run. Others who used the park would also be able to use the "Peaceful Playground."

Kids would still be able to ride their bikes across the blacktop and play ball. A new fence would also block incoming vehicles and, with the new blacktop, would prevent the water runoff that turns into a pool and later an icy one.

"It really fosters safety and healthy play, and it was really well-timed," said Rasmussen.

Responsive classrooms

Other nearby schools that have built a "Peaceful Playground" include Edina’s Concorde Elementary. Nationally, 8,000 schools use the "Peaceful Playground" curriculum.

Playground Supervisor Sue Aura, who lives in Linden Hills but works at the Edina school, said its "Peaceful Playground" is a valuable tool. Concorde painted the "Peaceful Playground" stencils onto their blacktop this fall, and it augments their other more traditional equipment such as slides and swing sets.

Aura, who’s supervised the playground for six years, said the "Peaceful Playground" has been successful because it continues the school day rather than interrupts it. With more activities, kids have fewer behavioral issues she said. Once they know how to play the games, students are actively engaged and teach each other how to play new games. Kids eventually improvise their own games.

When a school purchases the "Peaceful Playground," officials receive a do-it-yourself kit that includes blueprints that assist with measurements, layout, spacing, game placement and a big picture of the outcome. Activity guides spell out skill levels or age-appropriate games. Teachers review the rules, which are posted near the playground. Games emphasize individual learning, cooperation and making choices.

When kids argue on a "Peaceful Playground," they’re directed to play "Rock, Paper, Scissors" to solve disputes. That relates to the school’s "Responsive Classroom" training, designed to make the school’s environment positive and help kids learn independently.

Principal Joan Franks said that the "Responsive Classroom" was based on building community within the classroom – a Montessori ideal – to dissipate discipline problems. When kids do something wrong, they must come up with a way to fix it. They write out their plan of action in a kind of contract.

Armatage teacher and "Responsive Classroom" trainer Tricia O’Donnell said the program’s philosophy "stresses that how kids learn is just as important as what they learn and that social skills are needed just as much the academic stuff."