Fort Worth Unitarian Universalists design and build Principles-themed playground.
At nearly 5 p.m., the children were finally allowed to come out and play. They burst out of the back of the building and swarmed over the new equipment, including seven stepping stones, representing the Seven Principles, and a custom-built tree house with a web-of-life canopy. They giggled through talking tubes, crawled through tire tunnels, and bounded across a wooden stage. An adult was tapping “When the Saints Go Marching In,” on a set of musical chimes that hung beneath a wooden flaming chalice. And grown-ups and children together jockeyed for their first trip down the 21-foot slide.
“This was a very important project for the church, and it’s something we can all be proud of for a long time,” said Amanda Robinson, First Jefferson’s director of religious education, who spearheaded the project. “The kids love it. They almost have to push the adults out of the way to play on it.”
The Rev. Craig C. Roshaven, minister of the 200-member church, said, “It was a great community effort. I think it’s an expression of how the church values its families and young children.”
Although the playground was constructed over four days in April, the planning has been underway since December 2005. Robinson and some of her volunteer teachers had been wishing for a playground to keep the church’s 85 children from playing in a creek that runs behind the church property. The children, lovingly dubbed the “Wild Creek Kids,” were getting into poison ivy patches and trouble. “We saw a real need for a safe place for children to play when they were at church,” said Robinson.
She began to research playground building, and came across a New Hampshire-based company called Learning Structures, Inc., during a Google search. The company specializes in community-built playgrounds, and customizes each one to the group it serves. Robinson began to speak with Kelli Magowan, a vice president of the company, and learned that she too was a UU. Magowan had worked with many churches before to design playgrounds, but never a UU church. She was immediately excited by the prospect of incorporating UU principles into the design.
Before that could happen, Robinson knew the church first had to find the funding. They applied for, and won, a $10,000 grant from the North Texas Association of Unitarian Universalist Societies (NTAUUS). The group awards grants to assist area congregations with projects that will improve churches and increase membership. The grant provided the seed money for the project, and the church raised another $15,000. In 2006, NTAUUS awarded First Jefferson a second grant of $2,450 toward the playground.
The congregation’s largest fundraiser was asking members to buy “pickets” for the playground’s picket fence. Each of the 139 pickets they sold was stained brown and painted with the donors’ names. Members also sponsored individual pieces of playground equipment. For example, members of the church choir sponsored the musical elements on the playground: one set each of conga drums and chimes. They were donated in memory of Sharon Redman, wife of the church’s volunteer music director, Roy Redman.
As the church was raising money, members were also meeting to design and plan the playground. “Our design process is extremely collaborative,” said Magowan, of Learning Structures. “I knew it would fit in well with the UU principle of using the democratic process within the congregation.”
The church settled on a web of life theme that would bring UU principles to life for children. Learning Structures President Joe Cicirelli assisted the church in holding a planning day last spring. He presented slides of playgrounds that other communities had designed and built, and helped the children and adults brainstorm about what they wanted in a UU playground. To stress connections, they decided upon a set of “talking tubes” that let people speak to one another from across the playground. They picked a main structure that resembled a tree house, connected to a rope structure filled with animals to represent the web of life. Seven stepping stones reflect the Seven Principles, and they were to be painted the colors of the rainbow to reflect diversity and acceptance. There was also consensus at the planning meeting to include musical elements, as music plays an important role in the church’s life.
Cicirelli helped mold the ideas into a workable plan that fit on the sloping ground behind the church. With the plan in hand, the church committee procured environmentally friendly materials locally, which Learning Structures advises as a means of saving money and supporting local businesses. And then the planning began for the actual construction.
Building commenced on Wednesday, April 18, with framing, digging, and other prep work. The goal was to ready the site for the main volunteer building day on Saturday, April 21. Over the three-and-a-half days of construction, 120 volunteers worked at the site. They included Roshaven and the church’s minister emerita, the Rev. Marjorie Montgomery. DRE Robinson was joined by her husband, a member of the church, as well as her in-laws and her parents, who are not members but are enthusiastic volunteers. Board President Jude Olson shoveled and raked mulch, and operated an electric sander. Her husband cut animals and trees out of wood.
Said Robinson, “Everyone involved, including me, was amazed to see it all come together and know that we did it together. There was a sense of joy.”
“It was a year’s worth of work, but it’s amazing to see what happens in three days,” said Olson. She was struck not only by the physical results of the playground raising, but the spiritual ones as well. “It really built community within the congregation. We were building something bigger than ourselves. We were part of something bigger, part of the web of life.”
A week after the playground was complete, the church held its annual Celebration Sunday service to raise money for the coming church year. Even after all the fundraising for the playground, church members were generous with their pledges. On that first Sunday of the fundraising campaign, 100 members attended, and the church raised $195,000 toward its $230,000 goal. “We have an abundant spirit at the church right now,” said Olson. “We need to find more big things to do together like this.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).