Commitment to Our Communities: How a Puddle Became a Playground
“It all started with a puddle,” said Maria Chesnut on an afternoon Teams video call when asked about an effort she fondly refers to as her “passion project.”
This puddle-come-playground Maria’s referring to is an expansive improvement effort she’s been collaborating on with several other dedicated Paxson School parents and grandparents in Missoula.
While dropping off her son and daughter at school, Maria, a senior structural engineer from Morrison-Maierle’s Missoula office, noticed a huge puddle that was blocking a main access to the building and playground. Even as the remainder of the playground dried up, the puddle would remain and for many days of the school year “kids and parents were hanging on to a nearby fence and tiptoeing across a curb just to get into school,” she said.
As a seasoned project manager, Maria knew that she had the skills necessary to fix the issue and improve the experience of entering school to start the day. She also took on discussions with the city to help address the engineering issues for the puddle and additional concerns of traffic flow during drop off.
Once the puddle was dry, she began listening to her daughter talk about her frustrations about the playground. In addition, she took time to notice recess at the school and saw many kids wandering the fringes trying to pass the time. She saw the soccer field turn into a muddy lake, sending kids back into school wet and dirty to the point of needing to change clothes. She helped fellow volunteers create a mission statement and identify steps needed to complete the project. Their goal is to:
- Grow with students from kindergarten through fifth grade.
- Honor each child’s interests and give them more options for quiet play, creative endeavors, and sports.
- Given children opportunities for positive conflict resolution.
- Encourage imaginative and creative play.
Working with the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), the Paxson PTA formed “Play! Paxson” and divided up the project into three phases. The first phase in 2019, with a limited budget but significant inspiration, was an endeavor of painting games on the asphalt and creating a wallball area. The color brought soul to the space. MCPS worked with the group to improve the field and a new five-year maintenance plan was put in place. In 2020, bike racks were delivered to the newly paved bike parking thanks to PTA funds and a grant from the City of Missoula. As fundraising is completed, phases are implemented. Paxson’s PTA installed a stage and new playground equipment in 2021 that more than doubled the capacity for students. The group chose playground equipment to complement the existing structure and space. The final stages are a nature-based play area and a quiet atrium with inspirational art.
The Play! Paxson project is committed to finding creative ways for students to stay engaged through fifth grade. They believe that when students have positive engagement during recess, they will go back into the classroom ready to learn.
”Recess is the time of the school day where kids have independence in their choice of activity,” Maria said. “We want to provide healthy choices. It’s important that we try to meet every kid where they’re at because providing engaging play is a critical part of the learning environment.”
Creating solutions to building better communities is vital, and Maria considers herself blessed to be able to do that in her work and home life.
For more information or to donate to the project, go to playpaxson.org.