Quarter-million-dollar playground upgrade planned in Lincoln

LINCOLN — Seven years ago a group of Lincoln Community School parents got together to raise funds to buy new playground equipment.
“I had at the time a second-grader, a kindergartener and a new born. And the play structure at the school was 25 years old, out of date, out of code. It needed to be replaced,” said Mary Beth Stilwell, a Lincoln parent and school board member.
Stillwell started that first playground committee with the idea of “just replacing the play structure.”
Today that humble project has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.
Last month the Lincoln Community School was awarded a $100,000 matching grant toward a $260,000 project to remake the school’s playground and surrounding natural area into a place that provides kids more ways to play and welcomes the entire community.
Organizers have dubbed the enhanced schoolyard the “Potato Hill Park and Playground.”
“It’s phenomenal,” said Stilwell, who has continued to spearhead efforts to enhance the playground. “The idea that it’s finally happening and has turned into so much more than I ever expected us to be able to do is just unbelievable.”
Equally thrilled is Lincoln School Principal Tory Riley.
“This project was first inspired by children,” she said. “Adults, including parents, community members, professionals, teachers, administrators, took up the cause and have worked diligently for years to raise money and create a vision that will match the needs and the inspiration of our community.
Riley said Potato Hill Park and Playground will provide a diversity of outdoor recreational opportunities for people of all ages. She described it as both a park — with sports fields, gardens, landscaping, picnic areas, river access and walking trails — and a playground — with climbing elements, swings, sand and water play, and strength-building and agility components.
In addition, the outdoor pavilion will provide shelter for learning and gathering, she added. The nature trail along the perimeter includes a river, beaver pond and wooded habitat for many species of plants and animals.
“Our vision is that families with young children and school-aged children, as well as older community members and visitors, will play and recreate, relax and explore,” Riley said.
The $100,000 grant must now be matched by community donations, whether cash or in kind, explained Riley. Thus far around $40,000 has been raised toward the $260,000 project.
Stilwell, who spoke forcefully on the topic at last week’s town meeting, further clarified that the project has been and will continue to be based entirely on donations — not local tax dollars.
“The idea has always been that we did not want to burden the town or the townspeople because they have paid for this beautiful school, the bond for that,” said Stilwell.
“This is more than just a playground. This is something we are giving back to the town,” Stilwell said.
Riley clarified that a small amount from the school’s Capital Reserve Fund for building and grounds maintenance would be used towards the project.
Planning for Potato Hill Park and Playground has been built around school and community brainstorming over the past few years.
Using funds from the Friends of Lincoln School, the playground group brought in Lincoln landscape architect Deina Olstad to engage community members in figuring out what they wanted the enhanced play area to be.
“The first thing we did was talk to the teachers, ‘What would you like to see?’ and we got the ideas of an outdoor classroom,” said Stilwell.
That same kind of child/school/community wish list and needs assessment helped developed such ideas as a covered shaded areas for summer play; an outdoor theater that could host school plays, music or community gatherings outside; a regulation sports fields for the town’s multiple soccer and baseball teams; making the school garden available to community members, such as elders at Weathervane who don’t have garden space.
Key elements of the enhanced play and recreation space include:
•  Older children’s play zone.
•  Younger children’s play zone.
•  Natural play areas, using boulders and other natural materials.
•  Ropes course and teambuilding area.
•  River’s edge and woodland classroom zones.
•  Amphitheater.
•  Outdoor pavilion.
•  A wheelchair accessible path along the river and wooded areas.
•  School/community garden.
•  Regulation-size soccer and baseball fields.
•  Plantings of trees and native shrubs.
Riley said that she’s especially excited by the way the plan opens up the school’s beautiful natural area along the New Haven River to people with reduced mobility.
“One of the special things about Lincoln is that it has so many outdoor recreational activities that appeal to people who are a little more rugged,” said Riley. “So there’s hiking, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, mountain climbing, fishing, hunting.
“There’s not many gentle recreational opportunities in Lincoln. So I see this as a way to appeal to families with younger children, appeal to people who may just want to have a nice outing somewhere along the river, and that it will be a beautiful place to be able to do that.
“If you’ve spent any time trying to get into the New Haven River up here it’s lovely and if you’re an agile eight-year-old or an agile 50-year-old it’s great. But if you have any issues around mobility it can be really tricky to get in so we’re really working on that.”
Riley said the nonprofit Friends of Lincoln School will continue to raise funds toward the project, while the school will continue to handle donations of labor or materials. Meanwhile, the school plans to put the heavy duty construction work up for bid, in the next month. The bidding process will be handled through the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union central office.
Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield has already been brought on board to donate its time in building a timber-frame pavilion and the stone benches for the amphitheater as part of their design/build classes this summer.
Riley said that she expects construction to take place over the summer.
Among those most excited by the souped-up playground are Lincoln’s kids.
“Kids can play anywhere. They are perfectly content to play on the dirty field,” Stillwell said. “But they are beyond excited about the possibility of what is going up. Not just about the fact that they’ll get to play on it, but that they’ve contributed.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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