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New playground’s a ‘natural’ for children

Site was built with recycled material

Christopher, 3, checked out an earthworm yesterday in the playground at the Crispus Attucks Children’s Center. Christopher, 3, checked out an earthworm yesterday in the playground at the Crispus Attucks Children’s Center. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Stefanie Geisler
Globe Correspondent / May 25, 2010

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The new playground at the Crispus Attucks Children’s Center in Dorchester has an obstacle course, a fort, a balance beam, and very little plastic or metal.

The playground, built from natural and recycled material, was unveiled and dedicated yesterday in a ceremony attended by Governor Deval Patrick, Councilor Charles Yancey, and community members. Organizers said similar playgrounds are popular in suburban areas, but it is the first of its kind to open in Boston.

“It’s a national movement mainly implemented in suburban areas to this point,’’ said Lesley Christian, president and chief executive of the center, which provides care for children from low-income families.

“The goal is really to get the children out and moving and enjoying nature,’’ said Theresa Jordan, project manager at the Children’s Investment Fund.

Last year, the Wiley Playground was flat and had manufactured equipment and no shade. Today, grass has largely replaced wood chips and sand, the old equipment has been recycled, and several new trees dot the area.

Wood was used to create a fort on top of a small hill, and two yellow slides are embedded below.

The site features specific play areas for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and incorporates several sprinklers for water games, as well as an exercise path, a small vegetable garden, and a butterfly garden.

“Exercise doesn’t mean having to go to the gym. It can just be chasing butterflies,’’ said Christiana Unaegbu, 40, of Hyde Park, whose two children attended the center. “Having a place like this will encourage the kids to get out and play. For me, that is a plus as a mother.’’

The project cost about $270,000, Christian said. It was funded in part by a seed grant from the Children’s Investment Fund, which is affiliated with the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation, said Mav Pardee, program manager.

Although a natural playground is about half as expensive per square foot as a traditional playground, factors such as size can raise the cost, Pardee said.

“It’s not apples to apples,’’ she said. “The reason that this is so expensive is because we’ve got that whole campus, which you would never do with an ordinary playground.’’

More than 200 children from Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury spend about 261 days per year at the center, Christian said. They range in age from about 1 month to 6 years.

When they return home, the children often do not go outside, Christian said.

“The community area is not safe, so they’re sitting in front of the TV,’’ she said.

The playground’s ultimate goal is to encourage play and help curb childhood obesity.

“The CDC says outdoor play is the magic bullet for childhood obesity,’’ Pardee said. “Some research shows that kids move more in a natural playground because there’s just more to do.’’

Three other natural playgrounds are slated to open this year, including the SPARK Center in Mattapan, Viet-AID in Dorchester, and Nazareth Child Care Center in Jamaica Plain. Another playground is planned for ABCD Head Start’s site in Dorchester.

But the playground at the Crispus Attucks Children’s Center is not quite complete, Christian said. Other additions are still in the works, including awnings, an activity wall, a waterfall, and more climbing equipment.

“It’s really disappointing that our community is so bereft of green, of trees, of flowers,’’ Christian said. “There’s too much concrete and not enough parks and green spaces. It was really important to me that this be beautiful, and I think it is.’’