The journey that bridged the gap with play
A photograph of a Polish child at a “Dom Dziecka” (the Polish words for children’s home or orphanage) I received in April of 2005 started my journey towards an international missions trip to build a new playground for needy kids in that country. Having been involved in playground safety for the past six years and seeing the positive results of incorporating the “Supervision, Age-appropriate, Fall Surfacing & Equipment maintenance philosophy of the National Program for Playground Safety in our school district’s Standard Facility Guidelines,” I was moved to do something to correct this situation. With the help and generosity of such industry leaders as KOMPAN (donated three spinning and two rocking pieces) and some serious fundraising, the “Playgrounds for Poland” project was launched.
The images of the orphanage’s outdated and dangerous equipment kept going through my head as I started envisioning a new playground for the children. The equipment at the Dom Dziecka, which I call “one of the few remnants of the Cold War,” needed to be replaced with durable, age-appropriate equipment and play opportunities. The adequate surfacing material was needed as well. I drew upon my training as a CPSI as well as from NPPS and Boundless Playgrounds to form the foundation for the planning process. Like children in America, if these children don’t get opportunities for rigorous climbing, exploring and imaginative play, then some of the developmental things that need to happen in the brain won’t. All children, regardless of their nationality or social status, need, for example, vestibular stimulation — motion — to help various synapses in the brain connections that affect reading and comprehension. That’s why kids need to spin and swing. It’s instinctive. This was evident when I observed the children playing at the Dom Dziecka. They were compelled to find ways to meet these needs for play by hanging onto anything or anyone including myself that could facilitate play. In spite of the lack of equipment maintenance and no fall surfacing whatsoever, the children continue to play without any sense of danger.
I returned to Poland last fall to make a formal proposal to the orphanage administration, which was accepted by bewildered administrators who had trouble believing it was free. The Dom Dziecka is located in the small village of Goscieszyn near the town of Wolsztyn. The home is actually a 19th-century palace set in the woods of the rural countryside, surrounded by a castle type wall. It has seen better days and is starting to crumble under the weight of time.
Being “Mr. Playground,” I thought my American playground experience could overcome any logistical obstacle. I thought wrong. This was Europe and more specifically Poland with its own unique culture and process of getting things done. Trying to do this project the American way was like putting the proverbial “square peg in the round hole.” Shipping materials overseas and arranging for the delivery of what we here in the States consider an inexpensive, easily available safe surfacing material (engineered wood fiber) was an impossibility and “foreign” to this part of the world.
Out of frustration, I gave up my way of building this playground and searched the Internet for assistance. A brief study of European playground safety standards leads me to links of several playground equipment suppliers located throughout Europe. Several American-based companies also have representatives in Europe, but the cost of such products we take for granted (metal composite play structure, etc.) as well as shipping such equipment is too expensive for most entities looking to install a playground. An example is the cost of plastic border timbers. These are double the cost and therefore not normally used. The most readily available surfacing material throughout Poland is sand. A simple sand or gravel pit is used at an adequate depth to facilitate a safe surfacing with little or no border. Of course, anything three feet and under including ground-based equipment doesn’t require any safe surfacing material.
Further research leads me to Wojciech Smoczkiewicz of ARSPLAY, a playground and recreational equipment consulting firm located in Warsaw, Poland. Mr. Smoczkiewicz represents several playground equipment manufacturers including PlayWorld Systems. After a series of emails and direct voice communications using “Skype” technology, Wojciech educated me on how to build a safe playground utilizing the European way of doing things. He also shared with me information on many different playground equipment companies with manufacturing operations in Europe, even those he didn’t personally represent.
Our fundraising efforts continued to gather more momentum as the word got out through the local news media. Several local businesses provided the funds and product discounts to pay for tools, construction materials and additional pieces of equipment. Sunday School classes, as well as numerous adult members of the church where many of the build team attend (Lee’s Summit Community Church), also contributed greatly to the success of the project. Besides the need for motion-oriented playground equipment, my fall visit to the site revealed the significant child development need for opportunities to promote imaginative and sand and water play.
Again, I turned to the Internet and contacted another Danish-based company (LARS LAJ) with representatives in Poland. Our Polish contact for LARS LAJ Polska, Katarzyna Sawa, was very helpful in processing our order of a playhouse, sandbox, a sand and water table and portable rubber safety mats. LARS LAJ became a part of our team by providing the equipment and shipping at a generous discount. With all the equipment and materials paid for and on their way to Poland, the build team, consisting of Bryan King, Jean Schweer, and Samuel Jeanrenaud all of Lee’s Summit and Andrea Rutecki of Atlanta, as well as myself continued to focus on Polish culture and basic language skills. The build trip was sent for August 25 to September 3, 2006.
Our trip was coordinated by the missions division of Great Commission Ministries and supported by missionary Jack Stockdale and his family who live in Poznan,’ Poland. With our entire trip arrangements completed we boarded our flight on Friday morning, August 25 and headed for Europe. Arriving Saturday afternoon, August 26, we were met at the airport by Jack Stockdale and part of his ministry team. After a couple of days adjusting to Polish time we awoke on Monday morning to begin the work of gathering last-minute materials (quick concrete mix, shovels, etc.), loading the van and trailer with the additional equipment we purchased from LARS LAJ as well as our luggage—and headed southwest on Highway 32 for our destination.
We arrived late in the afternoon but were greeted by a gathering of the Dom Dziecka children and one staff member who spoke limited English. Fortunately for us, we had Steve Stockdale, the 15-year-old son of Jack & Joan Stockdale, with us who served as our interrupter. Accompanying Steve was 80-year-old Korean War veteran George Anderson, Steve’s grandfather. Mr. Anderson (Joan’s father) and his wife were visiting the Stockdales and joined our team for personal reasons. He too was an orphan over 77 years ago in the states and had been adopted. This build brought special meaning and motivation to the entire team and put everything in perspective. After unloading and inspecting the site we headed for Wolsztyn and our hotel.
Day one of the build started with an unexpected surprise. Leszek Krasicki, the KOMPAN representative for Poland, came all the way from Warsaw to assist with the build. His expertise and knowledge of how to get things done in Poland were invaluable to the team. Leszek quickly developed a layout of the equipment including the proper safe use zones. It was better than I had imagined and seemed to work perfectly with the overall concept of age-appropriateness and took in account the accommodations for future project phases. Being the week before school started our build team had some much-needed help from some of the older Dom Dziecka kids who were returning home from their summer break. They carried equipment and materials, dug holes, helped mix concrete, assisted with assembly and painted a wooden composite play structure that showed up sometime after my previous visit. The contribution of our on-site volunteers created ownership of the project for them and pride in providing a service to their younger counterparts at the children’s home. Working side by side with our “elder” (i.e. more experienced) team members Samuel and George was a sight to see. The mentoring and ultimately love shared required no language. No words were needed.
As the younger children arrived from their summer break and having learning the exciting news that the group of Americans were here to build the playground, they ran out in groups to see what was going on. You could tell from their joyous expressions and excitement that they could hardly wait to play on their new playground. This excitement had to be controlled later by a trip to the local ice cream stand with the promise that they wouldn’t play on the equipment until Thursday afternoon when all the concrete had cured and the holes were all filled in.
The day of the playground grand opening finally came. The local news media sent a reporter to cover the story. The children and staff of the home gathered around the director, who formally thanked us for providing a wonderful new playground for the children. He admitted later during an interview that he was somewhat skeptical that we would actually show up and complete the job, but was very pleased with the results. Immediately we started talking about plans for phase two. Our team plans to return in August of 2007 to install new spring-mounted seesaws, swings and a climber for the older children.
Phase one was a tremendous success. The “predictable play behavior” I observed the children doing was exactly what they needed. The little girl in the photo that inspired me over a year ago ran from one piece of equipment to another with the new teddy bear I had brought her, showing the bear how each piece worked. She then discovered the playhouse, and her imagination kicked into high gear. Instantly it was “transformed” into a fine Polish restaurant where the little girl took food orders from patrons and served “food” using nearby available plant material. Other children focused on the sand and water play areas, converting the sand into roads, dams and digging sites. All the children loved the motion created by the spinning and rocking pieces of equipment.
After tea, we loaded up the van and said our goodbyes. It was hard to hold back the tears as we left the grounds of the Dom Dziecka knowing that we were leaving behind the precious children we had met and grown to love. Goodbye Roxanna, Natalia, Anita & Eva, Macek, and Robert! We will see you all again soon. As for the little girl in the photo, well, my wife and I hope to adopt her and bring her home before Christmas.