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NWIC Outdoor Classroom

The Northwest Indian College located at the Lummi Nation in NW Washington sought to improve their Early Childhood Learning program outdoor classroom space. The existing space needed safe surfaces, more play value, and features that would provide a forum for cultural education. Desired program elements were age separated tricycle pathways, climbing features, gentle grade changes for early walker development, water play, sand play, and a story house for sharing cultural education. All of the play elements needed to be made from natural elements, or re-purposed existing play elements. Integration of local carving art, made especially for the school, was also important. Early Childhood Development students at the college were also going to be using the space as a part of their curriculum.

One of the main challenges of this project was to provide the desired elements for the play space, many of which were to be created from scratch, to meet current ASTM F1487-17, ASTM 1951 and ASTM 1292 playground safety guidelines for the appropriate age range. We needed to refer frequently to the National Playground Safety manual and Certified Playground Safety Inspector guidebooks. The facility was also subject to the program requirements and review of the Indian Board of Health and the Washington State Department of Early Learning, who would also be performing an inspection of the built facility to assure it met the ASTM standards.

The project was also funded by a grant from the American Indian College Fund. The terms of the grant were to reimagine and remodel the existing play areas into Coast Salish inspired outdoor learning spaces. To accomplish this we needed to spend time listening to define what this goal meant to the teachers, administrators, and to the children who used the space. The process was informal, allowing input to be received via email, at in-person meetings, and from the children through their teachers. Because of this sensitivity, the resulting play elements were very well received, and the Center and community at large celebrated the success of the project.

The final design and installation utilized logs, stone, sand, lawn, and shade trees to create a fun educational environment for both Early Education students and the children. The existing ‘playhouse’ was renovated from a western kitchen concept to a story house, where small bench seating was utilized to provide a place for teaching and storytelling. The inclusion of hand carved Lummi language interpretive signs for natural elements and animals, a story pole at the school’s entry, and small carved orca climbing toy are additional examples of ways that the native community were able to select and produce their own teaching tools, and be put into place safely by the design team. The complex nature of this project exemplifies the kind of tenacity PLA offers in their design process and commitment to seeing the details all the way through to completion. All schedule and budget benchmarks were met on this project.

This project was completed while working with The Philbin Group Landscape Architecture.

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