Manhattan school playground

MSU engineering students and the Manhattan School District teamed up to design new playgrounds for the school.

Manhattan’s antiquated elementary and middle school playgrounds will be refurbished next week in the a culmination of a nearly year-long design project that allowed younger students to dream big and older ones to think like kids.

A year ago, both the school district and Manhattan Parent Teacher Organization were aware of the need to update the decades-old school playgrounds. Existing equipment that didn’t meet codes had been removed for safety reasons, and the apparatus that remained needed to repaired or upgraded. The grounds had drainage problems, leading to icy conditions in the winter. A basketball court was the only recreational resource available to middle schoolers.

But neither the PTO nor the district had the roughly $150,000 necessary to hire a playground design consultant. That’s when Bernadette McCrory, a PTO member and engineering professor at Montana State University, floated the idea of a playground design capstone project for MSU’s senior mechanical engineering students.

Though not a typical capstone project, MSU department heads and professors believed their students would benefit from designing an inclusive, accessible, safe playground. Five enthusiastic MSU students signed up for the challenge.

Manhattan school administrators and the board also recognized the plan’s value.

“I really like having that relationship with the university,” said Rob Brownell, school board chair. “It’s not just a place to send our kids after they graduate.”

Though the project was unconventional in terms of classical engineering, MSU student and team member Erik Moody – a self-described “people person” and “kid at heart” -- said the chance to work with so many entities and apply engineering concepts in a real-world setting was tremendously valuable.

He and his classmates started the two-semester course with the idea of designing the playgrounds from scratch. It wasn’t long before they realized that wasn’t do-able, thanks in part to advice from a renowned playground design expert who visited MSU to advise the students about regulations concerning safety, access, inclusivity, and ADA compliance, all of which had to be incorporated into the final designs.

The students also needed to consult some younger experts – the children who will be using the playgrounds.

“Working with the kids was a blast,” Moody said. “They have a unique perspective on life and they have crazy ideas. We got to spend a lot of time with them and see what they wanted.”

Though some of those ideas, such as “fire slides,” zip lines and swimming pools, parachute-jumping, a clowned-theme playground, and a football-sized trampoline didn’t make it into the final design, Manhattan Elementary Principal Neil Harvey said “every kid had their say” and is likely to be delighted by the finished product.

It wasn’t just the elementary kids who got to teach the budding engineers a thing or two, Harvey added. With funding from a STEM grant, a group of Manhattan’s first-graders was able to go to MSU to learn about 3D printing, and grant funds paid for a 3D printer for the elementary school. Manhattan High School juniors and seniors took a similar field trip to MSU to learn about computer aided design.

The MSU design team presented the school board with various design options, and the board selected the group’s favorite, Moody said. Among the features incorporated into the elementary playground plan are a curva spinner, music area with a giant drum and xylophone, and safe climbing structures, including two slides and a giant “web.” A second basketball court and gaga ball pits are planned for the middle school playground.

Both projects were designed to allow for future expansion when the budget allows.

With some modifications and repairs, McCrory said, the swing sets and iconic merry-go-round will be saved, though the spider structure will be removed for safety reasons.

The total cost for both projects is $105,000, funded by $60,000 from the school district, $15,000 from the PTO, and $1,000 each from the senior class, Friends of Music, and Manhattan Schools Foundation.

The PTO is working to raise another $7,500 complete the project. Donations are being accepted on the project’s Go Fund Me page, or by checks made out to the Manhattan PTO and mailed to P.O. Box 425, Manhattan, MT 59741.

Dakota Playgrounds of South Dakota is the project contractor, but community members will help with portions of the build. Due to COVID physical distancing requirements, a quasi-community build will take place next weekend, July 24-26. Community members are needed to run heavy equipment and help rehabilitate the swing set area. They will be asked to stay in small groups and maintain 6 feet of distance from others. The PTO also needs to borrow an 18-inch post-hole digger.

Details about the build and fund drive can be found on the Manhattan Schools PTO Facebook page.