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posted June 16, 2003

The "Big Backyard" -- how our sandpit developed (1994):

Our sandpit

Shaded by many tall Norway maples, it's got some stump tables and long logs for balancing, and even some concrete anchors for fastening a circus-stunts cable. But its main joy is the sandpit an oval of sand about 20 feet wide by 40 feet long, ringed by big wooden logs. It was put into the park in 1993. A bulldozer came and dug a hole about two feet deep, and loaded the dark soil into a couple of Mack trucks, which took it away. A 15-inch layer of gravel was spread across the hole, and then the trucks returned with loads of fine, damp sand, and dumped it on top of the gravel bed. A city Forestry crew brought a crane and lowered sections of maple trunks into position around the sandpit to define the edges. Then we collected long straight branches for fort-building, and ropes, and tipi cloths. We bought half a dozen short-handled gardeners' spades, and kids began to build.

Human beings, as soon as they build, seem to have to mark off their property. The building projects were often impressive and the architecture was interesting and unorthodox. But for the first years of the sandpit there were daily struggles over turf, and sometimes the vibe was fierce. You stay out of here. This is my land.

All this changed, though. The city put in a water outlet near the sandpit, so that the volunteer gardeners could water the flowerbeds at that end of the park. One of the gardeners would set up the sprinkler and go on to weed or plant elsewhere in the park. Very soon, the kids figured out how to disconnect the sprinkler and move the hose over to the sandpit. They began to dig riverbeds, and fill them with the hose, and make dams, and soon there were rivers snaking all around the sandpit. The gardeners scolded the kids, and pulled the hose back into the flowerbeds. The kids just waited until the gardeners had left, and brought the hose into the sandpit again. They didn't mean to be stubborn or bratty, but they couldn't help themselves. They had to make more rivers.

The Big Back Yard

When you want to make a river, you can't do it on your own. The water keeps flowing and the kids downstream have to dig, to let the river move. There can be branches in new directions, and dams, and bridges, and tunnels (under the logs that ringed the sandpit) and waterfalls, and interesting patterns of erosion. All of this engages the kids for hours, and the river flows best when they help each other.

As more kids discovered the joy of water, the turf struggles mostly disappeared, and children who were strangers to one another banded together into teams of little engineers. The grown-up gardeners gradually gave up competing with the kids for the hose (although it took some of us a few years to grasp the significance of what the kids discovered in a few minutes). We bought a moveable Lee Valley faucet on a metal stand to hook up to the hose, and kids moved that faucet all over the sandpit to wherever it was needed. The rivers went beyond the sandpit and snaked all through the Big Backyard area. Sometimes it got very muddy and the playground looked rough, and the kids were often smeared with mud from top to toe. Parents came to realize that they ought to bring a book or a newspaper to read, because the kids wouldn't leave the playground, sometimes for the whole day. For those who forgot their book, we put out a magazine rack.

The park staff brought down the food cart with coffee and watermelon and slices of oven bread, and set it up between the wading pool and the sandpit. An adventure playground with snacks, and organic shade-grown coffee for the grown-ups: priceless, as the ad says.

the movie

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