At Home in Nature: Step One’s Hillside

sunny-hillside-photoWhen Step One moved into its new space in 1983, the hillside was an afterthought, if that. There was so much to do to get the playground in shape, and the hillside was brambly and treacherously steep. Still, it didnt take long for the kids to discover it. Soon Step One made in-roads on the hillside: tying a rope for climbing, finding the best blackberry picking spots.

The kids’ hillside adventures made it clear that the space had vast potential. Parts of it were cleared and teachers planted a field of wild mustard that the kids played in, picked, and cooked with. More and more work was done until, in 2000-2001, the whole Step One community participated in a design process focused on the question What natural spaces were meaningful to you during your childhood?A local landscape architecture firm, Moore Iacofano and Goltsman (MIG), translated those memories into hillside features. For instance, memories of playing in creeks and streams inspired Step Ones beloved waterfall.

Now the remodeled hillside is essential to Step Ones environment and identity, offering a range of spaces for experiment and play. One child to rest and daydream while another group of kids crawls through the trees on an expedition–nearby, but a world away. Teacher Amalie Hazelton loves the open-ended nature of play on the hill: Kids can be creative there. Because of the space, play evolves into more fantasy and storytelling. Children will build fairy houses or pretend to be pirates falling into the water from the boat.outside-3

The hillside is also open-ended for teachers, who use it to experiment with new activities. Last year, Rooms 1 and 2 planned a whole day out on the hillside together, from pick-up and drop-off at the hill to cooking in the outdoor kitchen. It was a wonderful, varied space for kids from different classrooms to get to know each other. In general, Amalie has noticed that the hillside fosters cross-age and cross-gender play, a great fit for Step Ones inclusive values.

The hillside changes day-to-day, and it will continue to evolve into the future. With Director Sue Britson, teachers Amalie Hazelton and Amy Thierfielder are planning for the next round of improvements. Some changes are simple, such as tying up a shrub the kids already like to climb around in, to create tunneled areas. Under discussion for the future include an obstacle course, large climbing stones, learning activity markers, and a peaceful meditation path.

Any improvements made will be consistent with the spirit of the hillside, as a place of risk and adventure, intimacy and creativity, and open-ended play in nature.

**Want to make the the hillside even better for our kids? Amalie and Amy request your spare tree branches: they are constantly restocking to keep the kids in material for fortresses, trees, and huts! Flower trimmings for fairy houses and yard cuttings for planting are also greatly appreciated.outside-9