Park’s Director of Athletics Bob Little recalls coaching a soccer clinic with former Park teacher and coach Dean Conway, back in the summer of 1999. In the middle of practice one morning, Dean suddenly brought play to a halt.
“Hey, everyone!” he said, “Look up there! That is a red-tailed hawk. Now watch what happens, because in a moment, crows will come out and cooperate to drive it away. It’s invading their territory.” The players dropped down into a circle and leaned back on their elbows to stare skyward as the aviary contest unfolded.
Coaches and athletes — teachers and students — out under the open sky, spontaneously observing animal behavior and connecting it to the strategy of a soccer game. A perfect illustration of the way outdoor experiences support the “whole child” philosophy that is at the core of Park’s educational mission.
Tirelessly maintained by the Facilities Department, Park’s remarkable campus provides for creative, open-ended play, competitive sport, scientific exploration, artistic inspiration, and community gathering. With its six athletic fields, old-growth woods, gardens, plantings, playgrounds, and rocky outcrops, this gorgeous parcel of South Brookline has been a defining part of the Park experience for at least two generations. During the pandemic, moving many activities outside has increased safety for all and prompted new thinking as to how Park can continue to use its outdoor resources when we return to normal.
While wooded areas of the campus may more-or-less tend to themselves (besides the need to clear an occasional fallen bough or tree, and occasional health assessments by arborists Bartlett Tree Experts), Park’s fields, playgrounds, roads, paths, steps, and courtyards most definitely do not.
Park’s Facilities Team provides this continual, comprehensive outdoor maintenance. Required throughout the school year are regular tasks such as mowing, field line painting, and irrigation; raking and leaf removal; path and road salting and snow removal; fertilization, planting, and mulching.
Director of Facilities Jennifer Mullin notes a wide range of additional outdoor work. Preparation for annual special events such as Springfest and Graduation (one of Jennifer’s favorite projects) must be planned and completed on schedule, without fail. Major projects, such as the 2017-18 renovation of the Discovery Playground, or the upcoming replacement of the main building’s roof planned for this summer, require substantial coordination and support from the facilities staff. And even as students and much of the faculty depart for well-earned vacations, the Facilities Team stays at it, tackling maintenance projects more easily accomplished with the campus in a less active mode. Throughout the summer camp season, regular maintenance work continues.
Of course, in a region like New England, flexibility and responsive action is essential at times. Ever wondered how the team clears overnight snow in time for morning drop-off? “We’ll start plowing at, say, 8 p.m.,” says Jennifer, “…and then the guys will keep going into the night, and then we’ll come in, go to sleep for a bit, and then get up at 5 a.m. and continue on plowing until everything’s cleared.” You heard that right! Dedicated Facilities Team members sleep overnight on air mattresses in order to stay on top of the snowfall.
As the pandemic unfolded, the Facilities Department remained just as flexible and committed, taking on Park’s functional response outdoors as well as the gargantuan task of preparing indoor spaces to meet new protocols. Moreover, Jennifer, Facilities Manager Joel DeJesus, and the rest of their dedicated team needed to remain “in-person” consistently – given that of course, very few of their responsibilities can be accomplished “virtually.” Changes like the installation of multiple outdoor classroom tents, new signage on exterior doors, and management of new entrance/exit and pedestrian circulation patterns were pivotal in the return to in-person learning.
Critical safety considerations aside, without Park’s outdoor classrooms and fresh air to clear minds both young and old, this ‘annus horribilis‘ would have been even tougher to bear. First Grade teacher Jerilyn Willig has spent many an hour this year with her students in the tent located across from the Lower Division Carpool Pickup area. She appreciates the “connection and community” this has fostered among the kids, observing, “For the portion of each day they are out there, they have zero ready-made toys, manufactured games, prefabbed play structures, etc. What they do have is unlimited access to nature, to conversation, to their own and each other’s curious minds, big hearts, gorgeous spirits, and collective powers of thinking, supporting, creating, problem-solving, learning, and enjoying.”
Take a walk through a wooded spot on campus, in pandemic times or not, and you’ll almost certainly find a lean-to made of sticks, an arrangement of balanced rocks, or other signs of these young imaginations at work. Take a walk a day or two later, and entirely new creations will have emerged. But perhaps needless to say, the kinetic energy that goes into building a tree-limb shelter isn’t always entirely exhausted during recess. Especially for younger students, this can pose a challenge to attention spans in a regular indoor classroom – without doubt even more so outdoors, under a tent. Enter the Athletics and Physical Education Departments, responsible for activating students’ muscles as well as minds.
Twenty-two years on from that July morning when he watched a hawk getting hassled by crows (the technical term for this behavior is “mobbing”), Bob Little “has been grateful for every day on our campus…an embarrassment of riches in terms of outdoor space.” That has remained true this school year, despite its massive challenges.
As Park navigated re-opening this past fall, Bob, partnering with Physical Education Department Head Michelle Young and an expanded roster of stalwart, energetic P.E. teachers, committed to lead outdoor, in-person classes whenever possible – in all but the nastiest weather conditions. Not only was this guided by common sense, it was prescribed by Massachusetts public health authorities. Creative thinking led to a range of new activities to supplement the usual P.E. repertoire. Students played badminton, golf, and archery on the fields, practiced basketball skills practice (no passing from player to player allowed), and street hockey on parking lots and the tennis court. When snow fell, there was sledding on Larz Anderson (what matters is the exercise of climbing up the 217’ hill multiple times, not so much the sliding down). The success of these new activities, and the overall increase in time outside during this school year have also awakened Park’s P.E. team to new possibilities for the post-pandemic future.
Competitive athletics, meanwhile, express the skills and fitness honed in P.E. classes within a cooperative team context. In a typical year out on Park’s six playing fields (a truly remarkable number for any PreK-8 school), soccer, field hockey, flag football, lacrosse, softball, and track & field teammates train and compete. Cross country runners circumnavigate the campus perimeter on the Park “Loop,” venture to nearby Brookline Reservoir and Jamaica Pond, and cross Goddard Avenue to host an annual meet at Larz Anderson Park. The ice hockey team, too, benefits from Park’s neighboring resources, practicing on Larz Anderson’s outdoor rink at the break of dawn. In the late spring, “Total Day” brings students in Grades 5–8 outside to compete in field events.
This school year, team sports have continued, in altered form. “We’re just trying to keep the kids’ competitive juices flowing the best we can!” says Bob. In the fall, some “virtual” competition against other schools was possible for the cross country team; runners’ times were recorded as they completed matching distances at their respective schools. A similar approach should be possible for track & field this spring. But most sports are currently intramural, with practices grouped by grade as opposed to skill level. Bob notes the added challenge of recruiting teachers in a given grade to step in as coaches for that grade – necessary so as to maintain pandemic “clustering” protocols. All hands on deck.
In good times and bad, the Park community plays, learns, works, and gathers outside on our extraordinary 34-acre campus. How incredibly fortunate we all are!