Full Circle School Natural Playground in the Greenfield Recorder

9/16/2017 Full Circle School introduces new 'Tree Walk'

Full Circle School introduces new 'Tree Walk'

By SHELBY ASHLINE Greenfield Recorder 

Friday, September 15, 2017

BERNARDSTON — While watching her three daughters navigate Full Circle School’s new “Tree Walk” natural playground, Kathleen Pillsbury of Gill marveled at their creativity.  Five-year-old Deveney started counting her steps, then seeing how fast she could hop from one circular slice of tree trunk to the next. Nine-year-old Kiley searched for wildlife along the path, while 11-year-old Madigan hopped along on one leg, then on one leg backwards.  “I enjoy seeing how they’re all able to use it and use it quite differently, but at the same time have the same experience,” Pillsbury said of her daughters, all Full Circle School students. “They can make it as challenging as they want to, but at the same time they’re all sharing being outside and connecting with the natural world, which I love as a parent and a teacher.”

Full Circle School, a private school on Parmenter Road teaching 22 students from kindergarten through sixth grade, recently incorporated a new Tree Walk natural playground. The playground includes a pathway of tree trunk slices that step up to a limbed tree used as a walking bridge, as well as a downed tree with seats cut into it to simulate a rocket ship.

John Friends, co-director and instructor at Full Circle School, said he had seen natural playgrounds in England and Canada, but was unsure of how to bring one to Bernardston. Friends didn’t think the school could a afford to hire a company to build one, but then last year, the playground seemed to almost start building itself.

First, the tree now used as a walking bridge fell, and staff limbed the tree so the children could play on it. The same happened with the tree that is a pretend rocket ship, with a parent cutting seats into the trunk.  However, the most recent development — the pathway of tree trunk slices — came within the past month, after another tree needed to be removed.

“I was out at just the right time to see this tree cut into sections,” said Bill Copeland, who assists with Full Circle School’s science program and helped build the Tree Walk. “They were just big enough to look like they could be manipulated. It just seemed like an automatic source of entertainment for children.”  Copeland drew a diagram of what the Tree Walk might look like, which Friends approved, and worked for weeks on moving approximately 50 tree trunk slices into place.  

Having a natural playground, Friends said, aligns with Full Circle School’s goals for its students.  “A big part of this school has always been encouraging children to be outside,” he said, noting that students play outside for more than an hour each day. “Play is a huge part of the curriculum here.”

Friends said the school was started by Michael and Rebecca Muir-Harmony in 1973, moving from Putney, Vt., to South Deerfield and eventually settling in Bernardston in 1975. It operates with two full-time teachers — Friends and fellow co- director Heather Leeds — as well as several part-time instructors.  Full Circle School’s students come from across Franklin County, and experience a curriculum that involves only one standardized test each year, extensive writing time, and grading based on student self-evaluation.

The Tree Walk, Leeds and Friends agreed, lends itself to having students take risks, use their imagination and build their confidence.  “The kids challenge themselves at their own pace,” Leeds said. “They can choose to jump across, step down, step up ... and they gain so much confidence with each little step ... There’s no set way to play over there.”

With the Tree Walk, Friends and Leeds agree, children can socialize while spending time connecting with nature and simply having fun, something that’s attractive for Full Circle School parents like Pillsbury.  “I want my kids to feel like that, that’s there still time to have fun,” Pillsbury said. “They don’t have to be done having fun.


Photo by Paul Franz of Greenfield Recorder