Playground Perfection

Modern challenge course playground delights kids (and grown-ups) at Minnewashta Elementary.

After a year of fundraising, Excelsior’s Minnewashta Elementary School has a fantastic new playground. It’s a challenge course style, and one of just 22 across the country so far. (The first one in Minnesota was installed last fall in Golden Valley.) Borrowing elements from the popular competition television show American Ninja Warrior and the NFL Scouting Combine, the challenge courses link up with an app, letting kids time themselves as they run through the course, competing with their peers or trying to beat their own time.

Besides the challenge course, Minnewashta’s playground also includes spinning climbers, multiple nets and two zip tracks—something for everyone. Fifth-grader Brady Nelson is enthusiastic about the new playground. “I like how you can do athletic stuff but at the same time have a lot of fun,” he says. Fourth-grader Ruby Larson also approves of the design. “I like that there’s new equipment to entertain the little ones and all of us older kids,” she says. This multifaceted quality is important, Minnewashta principal Cindy Andress says. The new pieces are not only challenging, but inspire creativity and let kids stretch their limits as they grow. For example, there’s a station you can crawl through, walk on (holding a bar) or climb—and students use it differently depending on their age and physical ability.

Of course, the playground is tons of fun. But Andress explains physical play is more important than ever for kids’ development. “What we’ve noticed in the last six or seven years is that students aren’t doing some of the things we did when I was growing up—free play, swings—they’re on technology more,” she says. This means they might be developing their brains more than other parts of their bodies, so when they get to school, they need physical play to develop their large muscle groups. “What we understand is that your core needs to be strong to let the fine motor develop. So the stronger we can help students become when they’re playing outside, the more developed their fine motor and brains can become in the classroom,” Andress says.

After her school had decided on the playground design, Andress happened to drive by the new Golden Valley challenge course. She turned the car around to get a better look, and that peek at the still-under-construction course affirmed the decision to install a similar course at Minnewashta.

Harlan Lehman, president of Minnesota/Wisconsin Playground, the company that built both playgrounds, says the Golden Valley course has been extremely popular. “I’m pretty confident that once we put these first couple [courses] in, everyone will be jumping on board,” he explains. They’re even fun for adults. “I kid you not: You’ll want to go over there with your friends. It’s that fabulous—you’ll stay for hours,” Lehman says.
Minnewashta Elementary first-grader Sebastian Bach confirms the challenge course is fantastic. “I like that you can time yourself, and you can play with your friends on it. I like the beginning where you jump back and forth between the walls,” he says. “I like that you can have lots of fun—it’s just really good. I like it.” A glowing review if we’ve ever heard one—now get out and play.