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Looking south from Melany Lane shows kids walking through Pike Park in the lower foreground and, in the background, the Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning charter school (left) and the just-started project for the school's customized playground (right).
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'Hobbiton,' labyrinth, elf village part of AACL playground that's under construction

Jan. 26, 2018
       After lengthy fundraising, grant-seeking and a planning effort that encouraged student ideas, construction of a customized playground is under way at the Academy for Advanced & Creative Learning (AACL) K-8 charter school, 2510 N. Chestnut St.
       Earth-moving vehicles from the Natural Playground Company began preparing the site behind the school Jan. 23, with a schedule estimating completion of the main equipment elements around mid-March.
       The facility will feature a slide built into the side of a hill, an area with caves and mounds like Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings, a labyrinth, an elf village, a castle fort, an outdoor classroom,
Holding up the good news about their grant request during the second semester of the 2016-17 school year, members of Academy ACL's student focus group for the playground posed with Director Nikki Myers. They were standing in the area where the playground is now being built. From left were Levi Turman, Christen Mayberry, Gillian Schooley, Henry Holz, Nikki Myers, Anya Nelsestuen, Rygar Schyberg, Elliot Heuertz and Aurora Tobey.
Westside Pioneer file photo
shade structures, an eight-foot climbing wall, a butterfly garden, plants selected by master gardeners for their altitude hardiness and a design flexibility that will allow future equipment add-ons.
       “We are delighted to see that the project that has been in mind for over a year and a half is now in sight,” said AACL Principal Nikki Myers. “We are so excited to see great ideas come to life, right in front of us.”
       The previous playground, inherited from Pike Elementary (the original K-5 school on the site, from 1956 to 2009) had been set on a flat gravel space. Removed last year, some of the apparatus was over half a century old. Not only was it showing its age, the equipment lacked “engaging outdoor opportunities” for the older students, Myers has previously explained.
       Adding to the school's sense of outdoor needfulness, the city in recent years had removed the playground equipment from 4.3-acre Pike Park, which neighbors AACL just to the north.
       “There has been a lot of research that if you get kids into green, natural space, it reduces their anxiety,” Myers said. She also predicted that the new playground's unique aspects will provide an incentive to get out and play, pointing out that “kids are not as physically active as they used to be.”
       Academy ACL opened at the former Pike location in 2010. The charter focuses on children with "unusually advanced, gifted skills," its website states. Enrollment numbers about 300 students.
       To fund the playground project, the school sponsored readathons and other fundraisers that garnered $37,000 in all. That sum was then used as leverage in obtaining a $110,000 School Yard Initiative grant from the state's lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado (GoCo) program. AACL partnered with the City of Colorado Springs and its Parks Department in the grant application.
       The playground's eventual total cost is estimated at $216,00, reflecting plans to add features to it over time.
       The Natural Playground Company, headquartered in New England, also worked with Academy ACL on the design. In brainstorming concepts during the 2016-17 school year, the school involved a “focus group” of students from different grade levels, Myers said.
       Volunteer legwork on project details came from the school's governing board, finance committee and accountability committee.
       In October 2016, the school held a public meeting, asking for opinions from people in the surrounding Mesa Springs neighborhood (whose kids will also be welcome to use the new space).
       The current development work was preceded over the past half year by donations of about 800 tons of dirt. The stuff was trucked in by various contractors and individuals, in response to the school's plea for fill that could be put over the existing gravel to help shape the new playground's terrain.

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(Schools: Elementary/Middle)

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