[Author Leigh Tatum is a resident of Highland Heights and a High Ground News Community Correspondent. Correspondents are everyday people trained in the basics of neighborhood-based reporting who have deep roots to the communities they cover.]
For decades, slabs of asphalt and a grassy field were the only outdoor recess options for most Treadwell Elementary and Middle School students. Its small, plastic playground is fenced off and reserved for pre-school students.
Now, after more than two years of work from parents and supporters, students have a unique new playground that they helped design.
On Saturday April 24, the Heights Community Development Corporation or Heights CDC gathered students, families, and neighbors together to celebrate the opening of the new Treadwell Nature Playground. The playground gives both the surrounding community and Treadwell students a new outlet for play and exploration.
The playground includes a hollowed log tunnel, a faux-forest made of locust poles, wooden benches that double as balance beams, and a rope ladder. The play features are covered by shade sails held up by repurposed telephone poles.
Treadwell Elementary students and families explore the new features of the Treadwell Park nature playground, including a faux-forest made of locust poles, hollowed log tunnel, wooden benches that double as balance beams, and rope ladder. (Ziggy Mack)
Heights resident and landscaper Daniel Grose designed the surrounding area, which will grow into a mini meadow with paths through multiple grasses, flowers, and trees.
Members of Partners in Education—the parent association for the Treadwell schools—dreamed, planned, fundraised to bring the playground to life with help from key community partners.
PIE member Gladis Arevalo attended the ribbon cutting ceremony with her first and fourth graders, Andres and Diana; both children have attended Treadwell’s dual language program since kindergarten.
“For an adult, we only see steps of wood, but I can see how kids are actually enjoying [it] and how more active they will be whenever they get a chance to play here instead of asphalt. There’s way more to do,” said Arevalo.
Diana’s take is that the new playground is “pretty good."
"I like it better than that one," she said, pointing to the fenced, plastic playground.
The school grounds, known as Treadwell Park, have seen some prior improvements.
In 2016, the school partnered with the Heights CDC and the Shelby County Health Department to add a walking trail around part of the field. That same year, the Heights CDC worked with community stakeholders, at the time known as the Heights Coalition, to raise funds and add an outdoor basketball court behind the school’s gym.
Then in fall 2018, PIE began brainstorming options to better utilize the open field. They surveyed teachers and listened to ideas and requests, including a resounding, “NO SAND.”
PIE's fundraising website notes that the unique nature playground design was chosen for a number of reasons, and chief among them are health and healthy development:
“Countless studies have shown how important time in nature is to childhood development, academics, physical and mental health … A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that children with poor access to greenspace have a 55% higher risk for mental health disorders later in life.”
In a community where many families lack reliable vehicle access and the nearest playground is over a mile and a half away, adding a nature playground at Treadwell was a form of social justice.
Michelle Forlines speaks at the Treadwell Park nature playground ribbon cutting ceremony in the Nutbush area of The Heights. (Ziggy Mack)
A Group Project
In March of 2019, the schools’ leadership gave PIE permission to move forward with a playground. Shelby County Schools later approved the new use of the land.
Michelle Forlines is a PIE member, neighborhood resident, and mom of three elementary students. Her husband, Dane Forlines, is the special projects coordinator for the Heights CDC. Their combined leadership—hers inside the school and his in the broader community—helped sustain momentum for the project from start to finish.
After PIE got the concept approved, the Forlines connected with three local landscape architects: Michelle Ye, Roger Ekstrom, and Anthony DiNolfo. The architects came to the school and hosted sessions with students to listen and learn what the children wanted in the playground. The three then took those ideas and created a site plan that included visually engaging images and technical specifications for the space.
In October 2019, with plans in hand, fundraising began. Heights CDC stepped in to serve as project manager, fiscal partner, and permanent maintenance provider for the nature playground.
The partners applied for and won a New Century of Soul matching grant of up to $10,000 as part of the City of Memphis and Shelby County bicentennial. PIE began raising money to meet the match from students, parents, and the broader community. Forlines was the PIE treasurer at the time and recalls receiving donations from students anywhere from 50 cents to $50.
“The kids wanted to see this happen and were being generous in the ways that they could be generous,” said Forlines.
In addition, the Kiwanis Club of Memphis, which was already partnered with the school, donated $5,000 toward landscaping surrounding the new playground.
Heights CDC Community Coordinator Christina Crutchfield speaks at the Treadwell Park nature playground ribbon cutting ceremony in the Nutbush area of The Heights. (Ziggy Mack)
The time between funds raised and implementation was longer than expected due to a variety of circumstances, including the coronavirus pandemic. A mix of local contractors and volunteers helped complete the installation.
Forlines said husband Dane went the extra mile to source project materials for the playground.
On a family trip to a local state park, he spotted a large, hollow log he knew would make an excellent tunnel for the playground. He then coordinated with the park and Army Corp of Engineers to gain permission to take the log, recruited a friend to haul it home in his truck, and used his own tools to smooth out the interior.
The log tunnel is now a prominent element on the playground. Michelle said she envisions the features of the playground evolving over time. They’ll likely add more hands-on and sensory items.
“This park is for children and the best part of all, it’s by children. Long live play, long live community, and long live Highland Heights,” said Treadwell Elementary Principal Jason Carr at the ribbon cutting ceremony.