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Revamped Valplayso playground will continue a community legacy

Valparaiso students react an announcement features new ValPLAYso playground Thursday January 30 2014 Thomas JeffersMiddle School. The popular 20-year-old playground

Valparaiso students react to an announcement of the features of the new ValPLAYso playground on Thursday, January 30, 2014 at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. The popular 20-year-old playground is getting a re-design with help from the city's students. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 4, 2014 6:12AM



VALPARAISO — If you remember the dream forts and homes you drew on paper in grade school, you can imagine the excitement a gym full of the city’s elementary students saw ValPLAYso: The Next Generation unveiled on Thursday night.

It was based on their plans, from dinosaurs to rock climbing walls to a volcano with three different slides: straight, curvy and bumpy.

Since its inception in 1994, Valplayso has been a playground by the children and for the children, as well by and for the parents and residents who helped bring the children’s visions to life.

“This playground isn’t about picking things out of a catalog,” Mayor Jon Costas said to the crowd of students and parents in Thomas Jefferson Middle School’s gym.

It’s also the symbol of the new Valparaiso, the one that came about from a growth spurt in the 1990s and early 21st century.

It started with the simple update of the 1960s swings and slide playground at Glenrose Park in 1994.

The Valparaiso Department of Parks and Recreation and Parks Foundation heard about Leathers Associates around Chicago and Indiana, building playgrounds with community members, and the 20-acre Glenrose had the land to experiment with and the opportunity to use volunteers and private investment.

Most communities provided about 500 volunteers; Valparaiso had 2,600.

“We became one of their bigger projects,” Seibert said. “The momentum kept getting stronger and stronger.”

The media called the five days a symbol of community and volunteerism.

Seibert said it created leaders in other areas, including Habitat for Humanity and foundations.

“It became a way to get to know neighbors and get to know others, and people still talk about it being the most significant thing they did to get to know people,” he said.

“It became more than just a park after that,” he said.

Perhaps the park’s biggest symbol was the wall of ceramic hands, colored imprints from the children who built the current Valplayso.

Those handprints will stay, moving to the north end of the park after having been saved around 2008 when the wall on which they were mounted was crumbling.

However, there will be two playgrounds about where the shelters are now, based on initial schematics. Jane Lewis Holman of Leathers Associates, who is overseeing the whole process, put together those schematics from what children submitted Thursday morning.

To the southwest, a tot lot surrounded by a fence will have a mini-village with local buildings, a table with streets for toy vehicles, springy riding toys and a complex with a snow plow with gears and knobs and a “snowdrift” to descend, plus monkey bars, a bouncy bridge, a tunnel and a rocket ship — plus swings apart from that.

The bigger kids’ lot will have a return of the Viking ship. They can crawl through a dinosaur’s maze body and slide down his head, visit a weather kiosk with telescopes, use a moving climbing wall and climb inside and outside the volcano or on a tree fort, on monkey bars and using hand rings and suspended lilypads.

There’ll be a standalone fire station, but a trampoline-like spider web may have to wait for a cost and safety check.

First graders Dahlia Smith, 7, and Lucy Moye, 6, both said it was hard work, and designing a maze was hardest for Smith.

Moye was glad to see her monkey bars included.

Kaye Frataccia, who is co-chairing the process, said adults wanted to make sure the park was accessible for disabled children as well as parents with strollers.

Work with the kids began before the semester break, with facilitators giving teachers instructions. They also gave each student design sheets to go in a scrapbook.

“It got a little sad for them with their beloved playground being taken down,” said Holman of Leathers Associates.

However, the kids were excited and “it reminds me of 20 years ago,” said facilitator Deena Lawley, who was 19 when she helped build Valplayso. Her father, David Butterfield, was mayor then.

Lawley said a lot of kids wanted underground areas, but those didn’t make it. Many included places for parents to sit and walking tracks for adults.

Her daughter, Evyenia Lawley, 8, has seen mom’s handprint on the wall and is excited about telling her own kids, “look, your grandma and your mom helped make this park,” she said.

She suggested a maze and a treehouse, she said.

Blake Gundrum, 6, is also a third-generation planner of the park, following mom Kirsten Reinhold, who was 7 when she and her mother, Sue Reinhold, were “go-fers” carrying parts during construction.

He has put his hand on mom’s yellow handprint, and “it’s pretty smack close. It could be his handprint,” Kirsten Reinhold said.

Seibert said he hopes the redone park will create a legacy of leadership and propel the younger generation, as it did their parents.

The new version of the park should last until 2034, when another generation will plan the next revamp.

“That’s a lot of kids to be born yet,” Seibert said.



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