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Not Your Parents' Playgrounds: Sweet Spots to Climb, Run and Explore


Published July 29, 2019 at 1:38 p.m.

Northfield Falls Community Playground  at Northfield's Brown Public Library - COURTESY OF BONNIE KIRN DONAHUE
  • Courtesy of Bonnie Kirn Donahue
  • Northfield Falls Community Playground at Northfield's Brown Public Library

Playgrounds today offer more than just swings and slides. Here are three community-created spaces that provide endless opportunities for fun. Find 10 more stellar play spaces here.

If You Build It

  • courtesy of Bonnie Kirn Donahue
  • The playhouse

In just three days last fall, community volunteers and Norwich University cadets built a playground in the center of Northfield Falls. A lime-green house with a crooked door and windows beckons young visitors, who can then dart away to see-saw or swing with a friend, create imaginary concoctions in a mud kitchen, or play a vertical xylophone.

Designed to engage kids' senses, the Northfield Falls Community Playground also features a long bench with a panel of play steering wheels in front of it, a bright-blue climbing dome, and a rainbow garden with plants in an array of colors and textures. Other natural features include a "dry river," a curvy collection of smooth stones; a pathway of tree stumps; and a cluster of small grassy hills perfect for baby tummy time. A hard-packed track around the playground's periphery allows for walking with strollers. Benches and a covered area that provides shade ensure that parents are comfortable as well.

  • courtesy of Bonnie Kirn Donahue
  • The mud kitchen

A hit with kids, the playground also has become a meet-up spot for parents to get "a chance to get to know each other, find out about what resources there are in the community and commiserate with each other," said Bonnie Kirn Donahue, a parent and landscape designer who oversaw its construction.

The playground, geared to kids 6 and under, is the product of community collaboration funded by a federal grant. In 2017, Northfield was one of 10 Vermont communities to receive a $150,000 Promise Communities grant designed to promote kindergarten readiness. Once they learned they'd won the money, community members met in workshops and at dinners to figure out the best way to spend it.

At the time, there was no central place to play, said Northfield Promise Community project manager Donahue. The only playground was a 15-minute walk — uphill.

In addition to the playground, the grant funded a treehouse-inspired story time pavilion behind Northfield's Brown Public Library.

The storytime pavilion - COURTESY OF BONNIE KIRN DONAHUE
  • courtesy of Bonnie Kirn Donahue
  • The storytime pavilion

The pavilion, known as the Magical Storytime Treehouse, was built in December by the Treehouse Guys of Warren. Constructed of Vermont-sourced locust, it is designed to feel magical and spark imagination, said Donahue. This summer, it has been used for story hours and playtime, said children's librarian and parent Rebecca Pearish, who has been involved in the project since its early stages. The structure, she continued, is fenced in, which provides peace of mind for parents. And this summer she's stocked it with wooden blocks and chalk to promote learning and fun.

If you go: Brown Public Library is located at 93 S. Main St. in Northfield. Northfield Falls Community Playground is located off Davis Avenue in Northfield Falls. Northfield also is the home of five covered bridges. Three of them — the Upper Cox, Lower Cox and Northfield Falls covered bridges — are located a quarter mile from each other on Cox Brook Road. Pick up food at the Falls General Store (7 Cox Brook Rd., Northfield Falls), a natural food market, café and bakery. Or check out Carrier Roasting (17 East St., Northfield), a new coffee bar and roastery, or Two Wooden Spoons (7 South Main St., Northfield), a bakery that specializes in homemade granola, sweets and bread.

All Aboard!

Cambridge Junction Trailhead Playground - COURTESY OF LAIRD MACDOWELL
  • courtesy of Laird Macdowell
  • Cambridge Junction Trailhead Playground

Once again there is a train stretched along the former Lamoille Valley Railroad tracks. This one's designed for kids.

Inside the train-themed playground's engine and attached coal car is an organ-like instrument that's played with paddles. The engine boiler functions as a climbing tunnel, and the smoke stack is made with two steel wheel rims welded onto a piece of pipe. Kids can pump a handle to blow the train whistle. A speaking tube runs from the engine to the caboose, which has a slide and a chalkboard. There are also two ore cars — one with two slides and a pipe chime and the other loaded with sand and sandbox toys.

A free-standing play water tower nearby has a climbing pole, an enclosed circular slide, and galvanized buckets and an old washboard underneath to bang on. A separate dining car, open on one side, has three booths for picnicking and is attached to a platform that offers maps of the area, a directory of local businesses, a history display and poems about the Brewster River watershed written by local elementary school students. Recent additions include a balance beam and picnic table.

The train was designed by Peter Ingvoldstad, who learned to build playgrounds while working at Smugglers' Notch from 1976 to 2008. He ran the resort's ski school and summer camp and, he says, learned to "do just about everything to make a living in between seasons." That included helping to construct the resort's playgrounds and water parks. In that role, he learned how to build structures that met safety regulations at a reasonable cost.

When the Lamoille County Planning Commission received a $250,000 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission to fund six trailheads along the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail in 2012, Ingvoldstad had already come up with a train-themed playground design for the Cambridge Junction trailhead.

The playground's dining car - COURTESY OF LAIRD MACDOWELL
  • courtesy of Laird Macdowell
  • The playground's dining car

More than half of the Northern Border grant money — $134,000 — went to the project, which was completed in April 2017 by Burlington-based Cut-Right Concrete & Demolition. Cambridge Area Rotary helped with staining the wood and landscaping, and Ingvoldstad built some of the smaller playground features.

Ingvoldstad visits the site regularly and says he receives lots of positive feedback from families. A moms club meets there regularly, and the childcare center at Smugglers' Notch has lunch and playtime at the playground once a week. And, because it's right on the Rail Trail, it's the perfect place for little ones to tire themselves out before being buckled into a bike carrier so their parents can burn off a little energy themselves.

If you go: The Cambridge Junction Trailhead Playground is located on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, approximately one mile from downtown Jeffersonville via Greenway Trail, Route 15 and Route 108. Bring a picnic to eat in the playground's dining car or stop at natural foods purveyor The Farm Store (168 Main St., Jeffersonville) or the Burger Barn (4968 Route 15, Jeffersonville), a roadside stand with a wide variety of burger options that's open from May to October.

All Are Welcome

The main play structure at the Community Playground at Collins Perley - COURTESY OF VALDEMAR GARIBAY
  • courtesy of Valdemar garibay
  • The main play structure at the Community Playground at Collins Perley

For years, St. Albans residents Valdemar and Bridget Garibay — the parents of four young children — dreamed of building a community playground to promote kids' health. Last summer, when Valdemar met with Dave Kimel, then director of Collins Perley Sports and Fitness Center, to discuss updating some worn-out exercise equipment, Kimel mentioned that the fitness center could also use a new playground. For the Garibays, that was a call to action.

In July, a 10,000-square-foot playground, designed for ages 2 to 12, opened to the public following a four-day community build that enlisted around 25 volunteers. A ramp allows wheelchair access to the main play structure. The playground also boasts a twisty rainbow-shaped ladder called a DNA climber, a geodesic climbing dome, a spinning wheel that holds up to 10 kids and animal-shaped spring riders for young children. Swings include a swaying, bouncing wheelchair-accessible Alta Glide, a saucer swing for multiple kids, and a generation swing that allows parents and children to swing together. Because the playground is part of a fitness complex that includes sports fields and a walking path — plus lots of parking — it is especially convenient for local families and physical therapists who work with children, said Valdemar.

The Garibays, who own research products manufacturer Med Associates, funded a large chunk of the $131,000 project. Additional money came from 42 donors, including the Knights of Columbus, BFA-St. Albans Class of 2019, the Rotary Club of St. Albans, small foundations and individuals. Northwestern Medical Center, RiseVT-Franklin & Grand Isle Counties, and Collins Perley provided additional support. During the lengthy planning process, there were around 14 design changes, said Valdemar. Many geared to making the play structures accessible to kids of all abilities.

Fairfax resident Brittany Bourbeau is the mother of two. Her 7-year-old son Asher has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a power wheelchair. The ramp that leads to the new structure allows Asher to play with his 3-year-old brother and go up and down as he pleases. Sensory items, including a play piano in a music-themed area of the playground and a spinning wheel with beads and water in it are also fun for her sons. Other playgrounds nearby — including one at Asher's elementary school — are wheelchair accessible, but she thinks this one is a great addition. Said Bourbeau: "Everyone wants their kid to feel included when they go to a public playground."

If you go: The Community Playground at Collins Perley is located at 890 Fairfax Road in St. Albans. For food and drink options nearby, check out Catalyst Coffee Bar (22 North Main St.) or specialty grocery store Rail City Market (8 South Main St.). The Frozen Ogre (46 North Main St.) is a board and card game store that also sells toys and creemees.

We asked readers to share their favorite playgrounds with us on Facebook. Here are 10 spots that win a thumbs-up from local parents.

  1. Starr Farm Playground, 96 Starr Farm Road, Burlington
  2. Bayside Park Playground, 2 West Lakeshore Drive, Colchester
  3. Maple Street Park, 75 Maple Street, Essex Junction
  4. Sand Hill Park, 208 Sand Hill Road, Essex Junction
  5. Bombardier Park West, 20 Park Place, Milton
  6. Landry Park, Pine Street, Winooski
  7. Thatcher Brook Primary School natural playground, 47 Stowe St., Waterbury
  8. Bristol Green Playground, downtown Bristol
  9. Old Mill Park, Railroad Street, Johnson
  10. Elizabeth's Park, 464 Fairground Road, Bradford

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.