On a once-unremarkable tract of land, where thistle sprouted and nuisance Johnson grass spread unchecked, rich black dirt now nurtures possibility.

Little hands dig deep into the soil, hiding flower bulbs from would-be scavengers who are spending the spring looking for food. If found, the flowers provide a delicious treat, but if the squirrels stand clear, the path that students carved into the earth behind Muncie Head Start will bloom red, blue and yellow this summer, leading the children into the heart of their school’s nature playscape.

Photo of professor Pam Harwood.

The playscape project, designed by Harwood (above) and her students, grew out of a grant-writing class project involving two Head Start teachers.

Designed by Associate Professor of Architecture Pam Harwood and her students, the nearly 2-acre space is turning what many think of as recess into a learning environment. It gives little minds and bodies room to develop gross and fine motor skills — along with their imaginations — in a largely unstructured setting. Work on the project began in August 2013; the second of the five phases was finished in October.

Elements include a sand-and-water table, wood blocks for building, a music and story area with varied-length sections of pipe that make different sounds when struck, weatherproof Plexiglas easels for painting, a tunnel that runs beneath a small grassy hill and some open prairie for group games. While it’s not traditional swings or slides, Harwood says the elements let children create their own fun and explore the world.

“They are balancing on logs and using pieces of timber as ramps to roll things up and down. They are climbing and crawling on structures that are made out of natural elements and traditional materials. They’re using music and movement — it’s free and unstructured, so they get to make choices. They’re deciding what they want to do.”

Partnership benefits everyone

The project, a partnership between Ball State and school readiness program Head Start, developed after Head Start teachers Tyanne Vazquez, ’12, and Debbie Arrington, ’12, created a real proposal after pitching a fictional project in a grant writing class.

Vazquez knew Harwood had a history with community-engaged, immersive learning projects. So the Head Start teacher emailed the architect to see if the idea generated any interest.

It did.

“The project was valuable, both to the Ball State students as well as to the Head Start children,” Harwood said.

The combined efforts have netted about $200,000 through grants, with additional support coming from private businesses and organizations

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate everyone,” Vazquez said. “When you see how far it’s come, and you think of the possibilities, it’s amazing.”

A sensory garden area

As work on the first phase neared completion, many of Harwood’s students were struck by how plans can change from an idea stage to actual construction.

Ross Goedde helped develop a sensory garden space, and he loved watching the students begin to use the area.

A young girl ascends a set of treestump steps at the 2-acre playscape at Head Start.

“They are balancing on logs and using pieces of timber as ramps to roll things up and down,” Harwood said of the Head Start children at the playscape.

“You design with a certain intention, but you can’t really be sure how a space will be used,” he said. “It’s motivating to me to see the impact of a thing, to see kids having opportunities they might not otherwise have without this space.”

Parents who have children at the school don’t doubt the playscape’s value.

“One of the things that sticks out for me, as a parent, is Ashton will come home and say, ‘I found a ribbit (frog).’ It’s just so amazing,” said Sarah Haisley, whose children Adriana, 5, and Ashton, 3, come to Head Start each day. “This area gives them different opportunities and draws them outside to learn and explore.”

Added fellow parent Krista Strait, “When I first heard about this, I never thought about all the options that would be available. I was just thinking flowers and plants.

“But there’s just so much for kids to do here, and kids today don’t always have that enough. To be able to bring your kids out here and let them explore, it’s something that I really notice now.”

Strait says she sees a difference in her son, Mal’Aki Hart, 3, after he’s spent time in the playscape.

“When he’s outside more, he’s more relaxed. He’s tired when it’s bedtime. He’s just happy.”

Looking to the future

A timeline for phases three through five hasn’t been set. Funding will partly dictate the schedule, Harwood and Vazquez said. But neither woman is worried: The funds will come.

“The partnership and collaboration has just been tremendous,” Vazquez said. “This really is about building community.”

“We’ve all spent a total of more than 19,000 hours on the project,” Harwood added. “That’s the equivalent of working two years straight. This isn’t something a single person could ever do.”