Playground

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Above: Friendship Circle under construction. Photo by Trish Elliott.

by Taylor Bendig

For the first 68 years of Connaught’s existence, it was surrounded by a schoolyard that featured little more than an abundance of empty space. Students kept themselves entertained playing baseball, marbles, variants of tag, and other games whose only infrastructure requirements were open ground.

“There was nothing (here). There swings and teeter-totters, and that was about it,” says Gaye Beechy, a founding member of the parents’ group that began at Connaught in early 1980.

The new group took exception to their children using such a barren playground, but saw little hope that the Board of Education would listen to a written request for improvements. So they invited the Board to hold one of their meeting at Connaught, and when Beechy was invited to say a few words to the trustees – and a watching Leader-Post reporter – she cut straight to the matter of the schoolyard.

“I basically said ‘Well, thanks for coming out. Hope you noticed the condition of our playground,’” recalls Beechy. “Guess what? That summer we had a playground structure.”

That was the first step in a long series of campaigns on behalf of Connaught’s schoolyard. Following that success, the parents’ group formed a committee to push for further improvements. By 1983 they had raised enough funds to have a second play structure added, this time on the seniors’ side of the playground.

An early conceptual plan.

An early conceptual plan.

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The crusher dust era

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The following years, however, brought setbacks to the quality of the schoolyard. In the late 80s, much of the grounds were covered with crusher dust – an economical but dusty, abrasive, and unappealing alternative to grass. And by the late 90s, the playstructures that the parents’ group had pushed for were nearing the end of their days. They had been built with pressure-treated wood that no longer met safety standards, and the city wanted them gone within the next few years.

They playground was a wasteland of crusher dust. Photo by Michael Plante.

That threat was enough to bring a variety of students, parents, school staff, and community members together in defence of the playground. A few small groups had already been formed around beautifying the school grounds, but in 1997 they consolidated to become the Connaught Community Playground Project, an official non-profit organization.

The Project started small, with steps such as decorating the fences and planting a pair of trees for the students to care for. But the group fundraised with gusto, quizzed experts and other schools about the relevant laws and logistics, and by 1999 gave Connaught its third play structure: a large new installation to replace the outdated wood structure on the seniors’ side.

Following that success, the Playground Project fell quiet for a time. But early in the new millennium, a new batch of parents and community members took up the cause.

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Green vision

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Dena Hudson and Michael Plante, a pair of Connaught parents and longtime Cathedral-area volunteers, were part of a small core of volunteers that made up the revitalized Playground Project committee. But they say that when it came to schoolyard improvements, the community at large was – and remains – quick to lend their support.

“The support is always good. People are always enthusiastic because what you’re doing is really positive. It’s for kids, it’s for greening, its to enhance the community and the neighbourhood,” says Hudson.

“When you put the call out for people to come help with something, you get people out,” agrees  Plante, adding that locals were glad to help change the “prison-yard kind of look” of the bare crusher-dust schoolyard.

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Pitching in

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Volunteers Don Jedlic, Duane Haave and Michael Plante.

Volunteers Don Jedlic, Duane Haave and Michael Plante. Photo by Trish Elliott.

The renewed Playground Project fundraised intensely, and Connaught’s students pitched in by selling magazines and by collecting pledges for a dance-a-thon that raised over $10,000.  Help came from outside the school as well. The nearby shop Chocolates by Bernard Callebaut, for instance, donated proceeds from selling an experimental new chocolate ice cream, and local artists painted a set of donated antique chairs that were then raffled off. The popular indy band Rah Rah – comprised of Connaught alumni – headlined a community dance and silent auction in the gym.

The Project also applied for grants wherever it could find them, bringing in money from sources ranging from the City of Regina to the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority.

Rah Rah

Indy pop stars Rah Rah helped raise funds.

The results of the Project’s work dramatically reshaped Connaught’s school grounds. A new play structure for the senior side was only the beginning. Helped by an abundance of volunteer labour, and using equipment and supplies donated by companies in Cathedral and beyond, an elaborate ‘greening’ of the schoolyard took place. A native plant garden was added, and mature ash and white spruce trees were put in (earlier attempts to put in small saplings “didn’t survive the children. That’s why went with putting in mature 20-foot trees,” explains Plante.)

But for Connaught’s students, the high point came in 2008, with the arrival of an improvement that they had marked on surveys as their most-wanted: grass. That spring, a 20,000 square-foot area was seeded, easily eclipsing the new swings and tetherball poles installed at the same time.

Volunteer Angela Miki.

Volunteer Angela Miki is cheered on by student Bjorn Haave. Photo by Trish Elliott.

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“Where kids can mellow out.”

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Amidst the gradual ‘greening,’ however, a unique and distinctly earth-toned little area also appeared. On the first day of summer 2007, Connaught officially unveiled an Aboriginal-style ‘friendship circle’ designed with the help of well-known Cree artist Lionel Payachew – a red brick circle, ringed with11 large stones as well as three cement pillars covered with clay tiles decorated by students.

Damon Badger Heit, the artist (and Connaught graduate) who led the students through the decorating process, says the tiles were meant to reflect students’ connections with their families and community.

“People did memorials to their grandparents, people did nature scenes, kids did … musical instruments – things they were involved with, things they liked about their community,” he said.

“I think (the friendship circle) is a good use of space, to have an area on the playground where kids can sort of mellow out, and have some story time, some down time,” he added.

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An urban park is born

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Photo by Don Jedlic.

Though the Playground Project is still working to improve Connaught’s schoolyard even further, three decades of campaigning have definitely left their mark.

“Before, a summer would come and go, and the entire senior playground … would be empty and blowing dust.” says Hudson. “Over the years, as the schoolyard has transformed, it’s just become wonderful to see the number of people that have realized the space is here. And every year, every season, there are just more and more kids, families, groups – people popping in and making it a regular stopover in their lives.”

Skater Ringo Jedlic

A place for everyone. Photo by Don Jedlic.

Step Back in Time: Original project website

The Connaught History Project is funded and supported by the Community Research Unit, Faculty of Arts, University of Regina.
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One comment on “Playground”

  1. I drove by the schoolyard a few weeks ago on a warm spring evening and was AMAZED to see how many kids were playing – on the swings, monkeybars, football on the grass and skatebaording. It reminded me of my own schoolyard in the 70’s and I really thought it was a thing of the past. Way to go everyone who has worked so hard to bring fun back to our neighbourhood!


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