I can't emphasize how much time spent in nature as a youth and adult has shaped who I am today. I still love the feeling of being in the woods in completely natural surroundings. To take that a bit further, I also love 'modified' nature like I can find at ski resorts. They are a sort of 'natural' playground.

The Thompson School District in Loveland is taking cues from this idea to construct a brand new natural 'playscape' at Big Thompson Elementary School of Science and Nature in west Loveland.

Thompson Elementary - Big Thompson School District

School officials at Big Thompson are going ahead with plans to build the first natural playscape at a public school in Larimer County, after learning the GOCO board voted to give the school $322,266 to build a hands-on, experiential, outdoor learning area for students and the entire community.

The playscape area will include an ADA accessible eco-trail, embankment slides and a climbing wall, a sensory play garden designed with native vegetation, and an artificial-turf playing field comprised of recycled rubber.


“The playscape will allow students to engage in science inquiry on a day-to-day basis right in our own backyard,” said Sarah Walgast, the school’s principal. “Children are naturally curious, and an engaging play and learning area provides opportunity for problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication skills to grow.  I could not be more excited to be the leader of a school that has such an opportunity on our doorstep.  This all could not have been possible without the hard work, perseverance, and dedication of the entire Big T community.”

The project, initiated by students and the Big T community, is slated to cost nearly $540,000. The Big T community, including parents, teachers, local advocates and businesses, has worked on bringing this project to fruition for three years.

“The Playscape Project represents an incredible commitment on the part of a school community to transform a school facility into a totally integrated learning opportunity for students,” said Stan Scheer, Thompson School


District superintendent.  “It is a powerful, creative way to contribute significantly to motivate students and their learning.  It certainly represents the power of what a local school community can do when it decides to make a difference on behalf of students.”

What started as a “design your dream playground” exercise with students gained momentum and support, culminating in the GOCO application this past fall.  Other key grants and partnerships include $50,000 from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and $20,000 from the Larimer County Open Lands Program.  “In-kind partnerships, donations, and community support played a key role,” said Kerri Rollins, Larimer County Open Lands Manager and sponsor of the GOCO grant.  “This grant was successful in part due to the 25 different sources of funding and generous in-kind donations from local businesses and clubs.”

While support has been tremendous, project organizers say they are still $7,000 short in achieving their goal of raising $100,000 in cash. With additional donations, they plan to begin construction in March, with the majority of work needing to be complete by end of June to meet grant requirements.

“In the Thompson School District, we strive to provide a variety of learning opportunities for students, and the playscape will certainly help us achieve this focus,” said Mike Jones, Assistant Superintendent and longtime supporter of the project. “What started as a dream will now become a reality. I am excited to recognize the outstanding work of the Big T community.”

Since the Thompson School District offers school-of-choice options to families, Big Thompson officials hope the new playscape will attract parents who desire a unique, hands-on, experiential learning atmosphere for their children.  “The playscape is going to open up learning opportunities beyond the classroom walls,” said Leslie Hyland, Big T teacher.  “The educational benefits of an outdoor learning environment are well documented,” she added, “as are the social, mental, and physical advantages it provides.”

To get youth and families outdoors, Great Outdoors Colorado has recently launched a School Play Yard Initiative, seeking more projects like the playscape at Big Thompson Elementary. GOCO is the result of a citizens’ initiative passed by the voters in 1992. As the recipient of approximately half of Colorado Lottery proceeds, GOCO awards grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Since 1994, nearly 3,500 projects in all 64 counties have received GOCO funding – Larimer County projects have received $33.7 million in GOCO grants.

More information and donation opportunities can be found at www.bigthompsonelementary.org.  Click on the BTE Playscape Project button.  Donations can also be mailed directly to Thompson Education Foundation “Big T Playscape Project” at 800 S. Taft Ave, Loveland, CO  80537.