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01 October . 2016

Child's Play: You've Never Seen a Playground Like This

Published October 2016

Here at Bexley, Evelyn Anderson and Jerry Hajek have built playgrounds from locust trees and rhododendron branches to craft play structures that charm children and their parents alike. We asked them about their work helping kids play.

Why do you use wood to build your playgrounds?

Where we live in Asheville, North Carolina, in the Appalachian Mountains, locust is a native wood -- almost a trash tree, really. People don’t like the big thorns that grow on the trees, but the wood is incredibly durable, hard, rot resistant and beautiful when the bark is peeled off and sanded. That’s what we use as posts for our playgrounds. And since everything’s made of wood, we can be creative and make things whatever size we want.

Can you describe the Bexley playgrounds?

The two playgrounds we’ve already built feature natural locust posts that are wavy and curvy. The safety walls that keep kids from falling off the ramps and platforms have sort of a creative picket-fence style. A lot of playgrounds have pickets made from six-inch pieces of wood with spaces in between them, but usually they’re pretty static, all the same size and shape in a row. For this playground, we made four different styles of pickets and cut the boards at different angles to make them more interesting. It’s more of a random, quaint look, like a fishing village -- after all, we are in Florida, and the coast is only a half-hour away.

One playground features just ramps so it’s accessible to everyone. You could wheel right up to the playground and get all the way up to a six-foot-high deck. There’s also a pretend store with shelves and benches, so it’s like a little playhouse.

The other playground is completely different. There’s a big hill in the center with a ten-foot-high slide and a six-foot-high slide resting on the hill itself, plus a viewing deck on top with a shade roof woven from branches. The playground also has a retaining rock wall with rock grips kids can climb up, plus rock piles and log stairs. The playgrounds are actually visible from each other with the bike pumptrack in between, so the whole area is basically a kids’ entertainment complex.

We’ll also be building two more playgrounds -- one near the amenities center and one in another park. One will feature a deck with a tall tower and a couple of slides, swings and a teeter-totter. Everything will be natural, durable materials with a rustic look -- the pickets will probably be rhododendron or mountain laurel and look like they’re made out of twigs.

The last playground will be circular and act as an upper body circuit with monkey bars, rings and a sliding ride. There are still some small decks, but mostly it’s designed so kids have to basically monkey-bar around the playground to get to the next deck -- they can’t just walk over to it.

What interested you about working with Bexley?

Our hotel is only a mile away from the job site, but you drive through subdivisions to get there, and everything looks the same, everybody in their houses with their white plastic fences around their yards. It’s sort of depressing. Then you come to Bexley and it’s so different. There’s a real focus on community, with walking trails and neighbors who head out to get a coffee or a beer with each other. It’s an aesthetic that’s pretty unique. Our playgrounds are really unique too, so it’s a good fit.

What’s your background?

Jerry was in the sign business -- he cut letters by hand for custom architectural signage. I’m the girl who took wood shop in 1973. We’ve been in the playground business now for 10 years.

Do you have a playground philosophy?

Children need safe exposure to risk, so we set out to build playgrounds that challenge kids a bit. The monkey bars, for example, are a rite of passage. Kids come back to play again and again, and eventually they say, “Today’s the day I’m doing it!” and they get a sense of accomplishment when they do. That’s important to child development. It’s our obligation to build a safe playground, of course, but we don’t want to make it so easy or boring that kids aren’t interested. In one of the Bexley playgrounds, for example, some of the hills are pretty steep, so they’re hard to run up. Maybe you’ll slide down or roll down or even fall down -- and that’s okay. In the era of the PlayStation, we say, get the kids outside and let them scuff up their feet a little bit!