Kids 'Go Play'

Judy Couey, superintendent of education for the Starkville School District, pushes Hanhee Yang, 9, son of Woojun Yang and Ahyoung Ryu, after a workday at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School. The school recently began a battery of improvements as the result of grants secured by the Go Play Initiative, an association of active parents. Photo by: Seth Putnam/Dispatch Staff

Seth Putnam

Jennifer Platt could hardly believe it. After months of planning, it was finally coming together.

The second-year teacher walked through the woods behind Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School in Starkville on Saturday and could see all of the elements to the school''s new Confidence Course.

Yes, she thought, the Number Log is perfect on that flat spot at the bottom of the hill. There''s the Seesaw, the Spider Web, the Giant Spool and the Wall the kids will have to figure out how to scale.

At least, that''s how she saw them in her head. The obstacle course wasn''t actually complete yet. The area behind the school was still a patch of grass and trees, albeit a clean patch. Platt, along with several students and her fellow third-grade teachers, spent that morning clearing brush and preparing the area to install each of the components. But the anticipation in the air was electric as Platt returned from her walk through the course.

"I went over there and my heart was pounding," Platt said. "It''s the perfect natural setting."

The Confidence Course is being built through a grant that pays out in \$1,000 increments over the span of three years. To receive the grant, the district is required to donate time and materials as well as participation by all teachers and students. The Phillips Design Group is doing all of the landscaping work for the first stage of the course, which will include five components:

n The Number Log: Students will arrange themselves alphabetically or numerically on a tree trunk. "Third grade is big on sequential order, so it helps with that," Platt said.

n The Seesaw: A group of children will sit on a large wooden square and try to find equilibrium as it balances precariously on a fulcrum.

n The Spider Web: Kids will figure out how to get everyone in the class through openings in a giant web of ropes. No opening may be used twice, and none of the ropes can be touched.

n The Giant Spool: A huge wooden spool will be suspended in the air, and students will have to figure out a way to get the entire class up and over it.

n The Wall: Students will have to climb a wooden wall with no handholds, which means that the last person will either have to be very athletic or have to rely on classmates to pull him or her up.

Team building

"It''s all based on teamwork," Platt said. "We specifically design it so you can''t do it by yourself. They have to figure it out on their own; the teachers aren''t allowed to say anything."

Each obstacle incorporates objectives teachers are trying to accomplish with their in-class curriculum. Plus, it''s an opportunity for kids to work off some steam.

"If we have social conflict in the classroom, which is bound to happen, we can stop and go out to the course," Platt said.

Another benefit is that the course will not only help the students bond but the teachers, too. Henderson Ward Stewart is the product of a restructuring this summer that brought students and teachers from Overstreet Elementary into one school for third, fourth and fifth grades.

Platt, Jennifer Wofford, Jennifer Virden and Hope Dumas, the four third-grade teachers who spearheaded the cleanup day on Saturday, were all part of that move. Rather than stand on the sidelines, they have jumped into their new environment with both feet.

"(The students) were all really nervous about the move, and we were, too," Platt said. "But we''re trying to do whatever we can to help."

That included working with Go Play Initiative, a partnership with the school district started by Heather Carson, the 2009-10 Parent of the Year, to help keep kids active.

"She gets her hands on every grant you can possibly imagine," Platt said.

A playground and more

It all started when Carson, the mother of a second-grader and a fifth-grader, asked how she could bring a new playground to the school.

"It is a concept that we started with last August and said, ''We need to get our kids outside, and learning can happen anywhere on campus,''" Carson said. "We wanted a holistic approach to learning."

She surveyed teachers throughout the district and asked them what new developments they would most like to see. The ideas heated up like popcorn and resulted in three plans for a brand new playground, the Confidence Course and the Discovery Path, a nature walk the school also plans to install this year.

"I knew we didn''t need to do something traditional," Carson said. "If we were going to do it, let''s just blow it out of the water and make it inspiring."

But people are sometimes resistant to change.

"There was some, ''Okay, that''s great, but no one else is really doing this.''" Carson said, but eventually parents and local businesses came around. "I think it''s because we''ve grounded everything we''ve done in the Mississippi Framework Objectives."

Carson admittedly has a vested interest in Henderson Ward Stewart because of her children, but she hopes other schools will partner with Go Play and come up with innovations of their own.

More ''amazing things''

"If we can get this here, we inspire the school district to do amazing things," Carson said. "This is our catalyst; this is the epicenter that we''d like to build out from. Making those years really special for our kids is critical."

For Judy Couey, superintendent of education for the Starkville School District, said Carson is a prime example of what makes education so special in Starkville.

"It''s certainly the parents and teachers that have created this campus for the children, and we''re proud of that," Couey said. "All I have to do is superintend and say, ''You have my blessing!'' I hope everyone catches this change-your-environment fever that we have going here."

Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas, whose landscaping experience came in handy on the work day, said the Confidence Course is an example of unity.

"You can tell the difference and power of parent involvement," said Dumas, whose wife, Hope, is one of the third-grade teachers. "These ladies did all of it. Not only that, but they got the buy-in of parents they hadn''t even met yet."

Right now, Go Play is still too young to have turned in to a nonprofit organization, but participants hope it will become one within the year. For now, though, they''re focused on meeting needs at Henderson Ward Stewart one playground at a time.