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Natural playscape installed at Messina Children’s Center

By Staff | Nov 20, 2010

After many months and numerous volunteer hours, the Messina Children’s Center in Fort Myers is hosting a grand opening to showcase its natural playscape today for the community to see how the center has utilized four acres of property to engage young minds in various educational activities.
The idea of the playscape stemmed from the children believing pumpkins come from Wal-Mart. Director of the Messina Center Tammy Aronson explained that she wanted the children to learn that they grow in the ground, which led to building a little garden with a few vegetables.
The small garden then inspired Aronson to begin a community garden in June with the help of Fiddlesticks and Target. The garden area includes 12 raised 4×4 garden beds, which has an assortment of 15 varieties of vegetables and many different kinds of fruit.
Since she is a farm girl from Vermont, she felt it was her duty to teach the children about growing plants. The community garden was also implemented to supplement the parents’ food cost with their fresh vegetables.
“I wanted to be able to introduce parents to fresh vegetables and how to use them,” she said.
All of the plants throughout the property have signs next to them stating what they are, so the teachers can identify what they are to teach the children.
“It’s an educational enrichment for children,” Aronson said.
United Way then put her in contact with Tomas Reidi, the owner of Define Spaces, which is located in Cape Coral, to brainstorm various ways to incorporate natural playscapes into the center’s four acres.
Reidi said he wanted to design a natural playscape by utilizing every corner of the land by not having any negative corners. His design incorporates many hands-on experiences, which were all built at the students’ height.
“Everything is built from a child’s perspective,” he explained about the hills and jungle areas, which are at the perfect height for young children.
Reidi explained that he wanted to get away from boundaries and create an area that utilizes many colors and recycled items, along with incorporating a green theme to provide freedom for the kids to roam and learn about their environment.
Aronson said it was important for her to provide a space for the kids to be out in nature, along with being involved in how things grow.
“I wanted children to have the opportunity to learn to see the world through their senses,” she said.
With the natural playscape at the children’s finger tips, they can begin to understand the life cycle of plants and animals, along with enhancing their observational skills.
Some of the areas include a workable garden that includes a planting station where the kids can repot sand and plant seeds to put in the community garden, a rock wall, musical fence, amphitheater for singing and dancing, a boat, butterfly and sunflower garden and various sitting areas.
In addition to learning opportunities, the playscape also provides a bonding experience for the children and parents. Aronson said parents have to drop their kids off 30 minutes earlier because they stop and play before they finally make it all the way to the entrance of the center.
Aronson said green space lowers stress levels and heightens the students’ self worth. She went on to explain that social interaction in a diverse environment also reduces bullying.
Pam Goldsmith, who teachers 4- and 5-year-olds at Messina Children’s Center, said the new natural playscape is “awesome” because it provides experiences for the children that may not have encountered otherwise.
One of the kids’ favorite places when they exit their classroom is going to the beach, which consists of 22 tons of sand. Goldsmith said after she taught her kids about how to take care of the beach, one of her kids took ownership for it and took it upon himself to rake the leaves that had fallen from the trees to keep it clean.
She explained that the kids take off their shoes, so they can wiggle their toes in the sand and feel the texture.
“We are spending more time outside,” she said, adding that whatever they learn outside they continue learning once they are in the classroom by reading what they saw or felt.
Reidi said his favorite part of being involved in the playscape was watching the community involvement in the project.
“I learned about the community from all different points in life,” he said about the volunteers that ranged from a 1 year-old to some in their 80s.
Reidi said the playscape will be there for generations to come because it is a never-ending project.
The community is invited to visit the Messina Children’s Center, located at 4650 Fowler St., between the hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. today for a grand opening ceremony of the natural playscape.
The center is open from 6:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. It provides services for 129 children, and averages about 90 kids a day.