You won’t find Nora Macario’s four children sitting around indoors, eyes glued to a phone or TV screen. They spend most of their free time playing outdoors at Grand Rapids Plaster Creek Park. While all of the planned improvements won’t be finished until November, the playground equipment is installed — although adults may not recognize it. Built from downed and diseased trees that the City had to remove, the timber structures could pass as winning ArtPrize sculptures.
“My kids love being in the park. They are here all the time,” Macario says. She’s especially excited about the new Burton Elementary and Middle Schools' outdoor classroom that her kids will have access to during the school day. “It’s amazing! I think it will be a great experience for the kids. And, it’s a great experience for my kids to grow in Grand Rapids Public Schools. They have great opportunity.”
As Macario shared her enthusiasm for the project, a dainty brown dragonfly, hatched in the park’s marshes, landed on the interviewer’s notebook, as if to say it totally agreed.
Macario was one of a large crowd of community members, Burton School students, media, and City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) staff attending the September 17 “Sneak Peek” at the park. Other updates in the works include a sprawling rain garden, a native meadow, and the outdoor classroom, dubbed “The Nest.” Grand Rapids mayor, Rosalynn Bliss, city manager Mark Washington, Grand Rapids Board of Education President Kristian Grant, and others at the podium all gave credit to collaborations among the City, schools, community members, and private funders.
“What a beautiful space! I love this,” Bliss exclaimed. “This may become my favorite park. It’s an example of what happens when we all come together.”
Players in the project include GRPS, City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation and Environmental Services departments, the Wege Foundation, and the Children and Nature Network. In addition to providing aesthetic and educational opportunities, the rain garden will serve as an important infrastructure for handling stormwater runoff. Community members in the neighborhood took part in the park’s planning process while residents across the City made it possible by passing the 2013 dedicated parks millage proposal.
“The innovation and leadership that Grand Rapids is showing around their schoolyard parks is Parks and Recreation, the City, and Grand Rapids Public Schools working together to increase park access and outdoor learning opportunities,” says Jaime Zaplatosch, director of the Children & Nature Network’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative. “The only other city I know of in the country where parks and rec is involved as such a key partner is in Austin, Texas. Regarding outdoor learning, the GREEN initiative — to make sure every student in every grade in GRPS is exposed to environmental education — is really innovative as well.”
The Children & Nature Network ascribes to the belief that “Nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter.” As kids today spend more and more time indoors, they are becoming disconnected from nature, a trend that profoundly impacts not only their health and development, but also the future of the planet.
"Getting outside to learn and play during the school day supports learning and attention — even when back in the classroom,” Zaplatosch says. “Students and teachers are more motivated in an outdoor learning environment and academic outcomes are increased."