“Be very quiet, Heidi, and we might see some animals this morning.” These are the words my father would tell me as he walked my older sister, Katie, and me to school every morning. Our local elementary school, Oscar Henry Anderson (OHA) Elementary School is home to most of Mahtomedi, Minnesota’s third through fifth graders and is surrounded by eleven acres of beautiful woods and prairie. Spending time in the woods on the way to school with my father and sister are some of my best memories of elementary school.
I am now entering 10th grade, and my sister and I have been exploring woods and running through prairies our whole lives. On our morning walks to school we would find as many different plant species as we could and have contests to see who could pick out which bird was making each call. We would see squirrels scampering and were even lucky enough to see the remains of a deer one morning that had become food for some coyotes. I loved how once I stepped foot into the woods it was like a whole new world. I felt so free, like I could be anything I wanted to be. Things were constantly changing in the forest, and every day there would be something new to find. I loved the smell of the fresh air, the feel of the cool air on my face, the beauty of blooming wild flowers, and the never ending sounds of the bird’s songs. I want everyone to experience these things and for all kids to grow up unafraid of the woods and to have a nurturing hand for nature. This is what I had in mind when my dad, sister, and friends Andrew McIntyre, Cole Harmon, Brennan Johnson and Davis Grilley, and I decided to create a nature playground for the children of OHA this spring. We pulled gooseberry bushes, buck thorn, and barbed wire out of the area and constructed a natural barrier. We moved some logs that had been cut and pulled using the old style horse method into the area for the kids to play on.
I went back to OHA about a week ago to ask the kids what they think about their new natural playground, or The Outback, as the kids named it. The first person I sat down with was a young boy named Devon, and I asked if he ever played in The Outback. He told me that he really likes going out there and building things, but that he never has time to get out there as much as he would like. I then talked to Johnny and Josh, friends who were just sitting down to eat their lunch. They said that they absolutely love spending time out there. Johnny told me that he and Josh were trying to build a life size cabin with the logs and have also been building mountains of sand and digging holes in the dirt. I asked them what was their favorite place in The Outback, and Josh immediately answered that there is a tree stump that makes a perfect bench. He and Johnny love to sit there and enjoy the view of the trees. I love to hear that young kids would rather sit on tree stumps and take in the surroundings than sit on a couch watching T.V. Josh and Johnny’s only complaint was that they don’t have enough time to play there.
It is not just the boys who like playing in this natural playground. The girls I spoke with really like it too. I chatted with Hailey, Eva, Alicia, and Zoe, and they all said that it was their favorite part of school. The girls said they love to build things out of the logs and that not even the bugs can stop them from having a good time. The girls told me that the best part about The Outback is that everyone works together as a team and there is no fighting. They all share with each other and cooperate. They are accepting of each other and everyone is allowed to play. I think it is incredible that these kids are able to come together as one and have a good time.
I wanted to get the perspective of an adult so I asked the Mahtomedi Adventure Club (MAC) Supervisor, Jamie, for her thoughts. MAC is a program where students at OHA can be dropped off before or after school and during the summer. Jamie says there are always lots of kids asking to play in The Outback. She said that they are always building new things like teepees and forts. She said they made a stage and benches the other day and had a great time putting on plays and skits for each other. Jaime said “I love it and so do they.”
The Outback is surrounded by a barrier of buckthorn and other branches so kids can’t wander off. It is near the school, yet secluded enough that the kids feel free. Overall, I think that The Outback is a great place for the children of OHA to play. It teaches kids about the plants and animals that live near us and how to take care of the woods. The Outback inspires innovation and fosters creativity. It instills a new sense of adventure and is a great alternative to traditional playground equipment. The woods are constantly changing and the kids can customize and build The Outback the way they want. The Outback provides a perfect getaway for those children who want an alternative to flag football or swing sets. I think it will provide many great learning possibilities in the future and I can’t wait to see how it grows with the upcoming generations.
Heidi Ledermann is a sophomore at Mahtomedi High School where she participates in Eco Club and several other sports and activities.