Long-awaited Playground Nears Completion

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Harwich Elementary School , Recreation , Community Preservation Act

The playground features a boathouse and a shark sculpture. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH — For almost every town building project, there are a few people eagerly waiting for the job to be completed. But in this case, hundreds of constituents are literally peering through the fence every day looking for signs that the work is finished.

It’s the new playground behind Harwich Elementary School, and despite pandemic-related setbacks and other challenges, it’s nearly complete.

“Our kids have been without a playground essentially for two-and-a-half years,” Principal Mary Oldach said. “Our second graders have never known a playground here.”

Because of safety concerns and a lack of accessible features, the old Castle in the Clouds timber playground was demolished in November 2019. Built by volunteers, the old playground lasted 25 years. At the end, its wood was splintered and new standards no longer allowed the use of the wood preservative chromated copper arsenate, a known toxin. When it was torn down, some residents – including some of the teachers at the school – wept at the loss of the memories.

The effort to build a new playground was led by the school’s parent teacher organization, which raised around $80,000 by holding “fun run” events for two years. The PTO also initiated a grant request from the town’s community preservation committee, though the application was later taken over by the town itself, which owns the property. The CPC ultimately voted to contribute $500,000 toward the estimated $580,000 project cost. Final contract figures for the job were not immediately available.

The new playground was expected to open to the public in a matter of days, as soon as a final safety inspection is performed and construction materials are removed from the site. Oldach said she hopes it can open before the end of the school year; a pair of big ceremonial scissors is already on a table in her office, awaiting the ribbon cutting. Though the playground will open sooner, a grand opening will likely take place after summer vacation.

“We’re going to make it more of a back-to-school event,” she said.

Built by Marshfield-based contractor Childscapes, the playground includes the old standards, including slides and swings (students stressed the need for plenty of the latter, so there are extras), but also includes more creative features. There are oversized musical instruments like chimes, a merry-go-round, and a jungle gym. All of the playground elements are designed to be accessible by all children and fully comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It’s very multi-sensory,” Oldach said. For creative play, socialization and physical exercise, benefiting kids’ emotional, social, cognitive and physical development, “this checks all of the boxes,” she said.

The playground is also designed to be unique to Harwich, with elements that have a maritime theme.

“That’s the first part they’ll see,” Oldach said. There is a shark sculpture, components that look like piers, and a sandbox in the shape of a boat. A little play building bears a sign that reads “Harwich Fish Shack,” and a placard on another play structure reads “Harwich Cranberries.” The colors of the equipment are largely blue and silver, matching the Monomoy school colors.

With regard to the pandemic, the timing of the project was unfortunate. Less than three months after the Castle in the Clouds was demolished, the novel coronavirus reached the U.S.

“COVID took its toll on everything,” Oldach said. The town meeting vote on the CPA grant had to be postponed, and once the funds were authorized, new problems began with supply chain issues. Some parts took longer than expected to become available, and labor was also in short supply and high demand. The subcontractor responsible for installing the pour-in-place rubber play surface showed up in Harwich having just driven 31 hours straight from their last job in New Mexico, Oldach said. While rising costs related to the delay prompted officials to scale back the project slightly, “they did not have to eliminate any of the equipment,” she said. Had there been any additional delays or price increases, “things would’ve gotten cut,” she said.

Oldach praised Harwich Elementary’s teachers and staff for improvising recess activities during the pandemic, when the school was without a playground and when classes of students had to be kept segregated. The staff devised a plan for rotating outdoor recess time through different stations on the school grounds, alternating the fields with the basketball court and other locations. The PTO also provided extra funds to buy recess equipment, all of which initially had to be sanitized between uses.

“If COVID taught us one thing, it’s to roll with it and be patient,” Oldach said.

As of late last week, the new playground appeared to be virtually complete and was surrounded by construction fencing. Students going to recess on the adjacent athletic field peered through the fence in anticipation. It was something Oldach warned the contractor about.

“I told them, you’ve got 500 supervisors out there every day,” she quipped.