GUERNSEY— It is the place of scraped knees and secrets whispered between third graders; where friendships are made and lost and made again—sometimes all in the same day. Swings and slides, monkey bars and merry-go-rounds—a place of respite from the regimen of the classroom. And for most of us who grew up in the traditional school systems, it is literally common ground and nearly everyone has a story to tell about their time spent on an elementary playground.
But nowadays, the trappings of technology have increasingly trespassed the territory that once allowed us time spent together, engaged in words and actions—our ability to be more connected seemingly the culprit in creating our increasing separation.
So when Mickayla VanNatter was looking for a project to meet the requirements to earn the Gold Award, Girl Scouting’s highest honor, her desire to get kids back together in a very real way became the focus of her search.
Now a sophomore at Guernsey-Sunrise High School, Mickayla has spent most of her life and all of her school years in Guernsey, the place she calls home along with her parents Ray and Sarah, and siblings Haylee and Nathan.
She has worked her way up through the Girl Scouting program, beginning with the Daisies as a kindergartner and on through the levels of Brownies, Juniors, Cadets and now a Senior. She will reach Ambassadors, the final level of the program next year. Working through those previous ranks, Mickayla has been part of Bronze and Silver projects, two of the three major award levels in Girl Scouting. As a fifth-grader, she was part of a group who helped provide benches and planters at a new park in the community and her Silver Award had Mickayla working on Anti-Bullying Awareness at her school.
Having reached the age for the Senior level this year, she qualified to work on the Gold Award which requires a substantial amount of effort on her part to earn.
After doing some extended research into ideas for her project, Mickayla decided to take on something that would address her wish to see kids spend more real time together in a positive atmosphere, a natural follow-up to issues she encountered in the anti-bullying work.
Picking up on an example she found on the internet, Mickayla decided to add a multitude of various games to the elementary playground that would require kids to play or work together—games and activities that would encourage group or team play.
Much of it involved drawing and painting directly on the surface of the playground itself.
The idea included patterns such as a target where kids can throw bean bags for points, permanent picture frames where they can draw a self-portrait with chalk, a hopscotch course, a four-square court, a tic-tac-toe pattern to use with chalk, a large outline of the state of Wyoming with landmarks such as the Platte River, the state capital, Devil’s Tower, Flaming Gorge, Old Faithful and others written in for a visual way for students to learn about the state, Buddy Benches where students can go to let others know they want to be included in a game or need a playmate, measurement markings on the building’s rain gutters where kids can see how tall they are, painting the regulatory lines for the basketball court, painting the trash cans, painting a compass and an obstacle course, a diagram of the solar system showing the planets, and more.
To meet the requirements for her award, Mickayla had to follow a distinct protocol in planning and carrying out her project, beginning with getting permission from the school district and researching exactly how many stations she would add and how they would all need to be placed. She worked on that during the month of April and presented her proposal for approval to the Wyoming/Montana Girl Scout Council, which she received in July.
It was then that the real work began. Once she had determined the specific stations, she had to calculate the kind and amount of supplies she would need and acquire the funds or donations to carry out the work. Most of what Mickayla needed involved paint and related items and her project got a huge boost when Howshar Hardware of Guernsey offered to provide those items at no charge. “I really appreciated what Charles (Howshar) gave me,” says Mickayla. “He really stepped up for this.”
Before they could begin painting, the concrete had to be thoroughly swept and cleaned with a power washer. Then the stations all had to be drawn with chalk lines or markers—some tedious work to be sure it all fit and looked good together.
Just as the heat of late July and early August hit, it was time to paint. With help from her grandfather, Dave Seyfang, Sr., friends Macy and Stephanie Mote and her mom Sarah, the crew spent a full week, including some 12-hour days in 90-100 degree weather, painting the stations across the entire playground, estimated to cover somewhere around 8,000-9.000 square feet.
Mickayla explained, “It was so hot some of those days that we actually had to set up some shelters to provide some shade for us. It was pretty hot out there.”
In addition to the stations, they also painted the Buddy Benches, adding several sizes of handprints, courtesy of some willing friends and family. On their final day of the work, each bench was also inscribed with one of two positive expressions Mickayla selected especially for the project. She chose “Friends are like sunshine on a cloudy day.” and “Kindness is free, sprinkle it everywhere.”
With just a few do-overs thanks to some intermittent showers, the lions’ share of the project was completed by the end of the first week of August.
It didn’t take long for word to get out and soon, local families were making their way to the playground to try out the new games. “We saw a lot of local people down at the school, checking it out,” said Sarah.
The idea even drew out-of-state interest during the eclipse when a school administrator from Michigan saw the project and took photographs, saying he wanted to take the idea home and implement it on their school playground.
Once school in Guernsey began in mid-August, Mickayla and classmate Victoria Sierra spent a day with the kids on the playground to explain each station and how each game or activity worked. It has been a hit with the students.
When asked what she learned in the process, a broad smile came across Mickayla’s face. “Oh, I learned a lot doing this. I learned work skills—getting up early to paint in the heat—I learned a lot of determination doing that! One thing I won’t forget is when we were trying to finish one night and we were out painting by flashlight just because it was cooler! I learned about working with kids, leadership skills during the actual work and when we taught the kids about the stations.”
All that remains at this point for Mickayla to do is submit her final paperwork that shows the completed project and her work hours to the Girl Scout Council. Projects submitted for a Gold Award require a minimum of 80 hours be put in by the applicant alone—hours worked by family and friends cannot be applied to fulfill that requirement. Mikayla and Sarah said they estimate around 240 total hours were put in collectively on this project and the magnitude of what’s been accomplished has certainly not been lost on a girl who just wants to see kids spend more time together.
An excellent student in her own right, Mickayla VanNatter knows the classroom is an important place for learning. But in the summer of 2017, she found out just how much you can learn out on an elementary playground.