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Putting the play in playground: State parks upgrades draw rave reviews

NIAGARA FALLS – The whole neighborhood was watching while state parks workers were installing a variety of intriguing structures in the new and improved playground at DeVeaux Wood State Park off Lewiston Road.

When the playground opened, on Memorial Day weekend, it drew curious parents and excited kids from all over.

On her occasional drives by DeVeaux, said Julie Coulter, the playground "looked very, very interesting and fun." When she and her 3-year-old daughter, Lena, finally got there, she said, Lena "didn't know what to do first."

The family used the playground before its improvements, when it had one large play structure and a swing set on a flooring of wood chips. Now, said Coulter, "It's the best one I've been to in the City of Niagara Falls."

The 5,300-square-foot addition may have made DeVeaux the most innovative and modern playground far beyond the city, too.

"We really wanted to make this a destination playground," said Carl Flora, senior architect with the state office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Julie Coulter watches as her daughter Lena Coulter, 3, and Chase Kinsley , 4, play on the four-person We-Saw at the new DeVeaux Woods playground.
(John Hickey/Buffalo News)

So far, it's working. Several days after it opened, "The playground is doing spectacular, above and beyond what we expected," said Sam Conti, manager of Devil's Hole, DeVeaux Woods, Whirlpool and Reservoir State Parks.

The improvements to the DeVeaux Woods State Park and Whirlpool State Park playgrounds and the addition of an outdoor gym and fitness trail at Reservoir State Park are part of a huge investment in state parks under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's NY Parks 2020 program, a multiyear commitment of $900 million in private and public funding for state parks from 2011 to 2020.

But funding commitments were the last thing on the minds of the happy children who raced from climbing wall to swing set to slides on a recent sunny day. Chase Kinsley, 4, who was there with his mother, joined Lena Coulter on the We-Saw, an advanced teeter-totter for four that can be used by adults and children alike.

Ava Thomas, 6, of Niagara Falls plays on the spinner maze at the new DeVeaux Woods playground. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Ava Thomas, 6, was occupied with a spinner maze. And Ava's father, Brandon, of Niagara Falls, got his own workout by pushing a group of shrieking children, including Nia Bess, 8, and Eliana Bess, 5, on the standing TopseyTurvey spinner.

The Bess girls' father, Fletcher, said his daughters spotted the work on the playground as he drove by recently. "I didn't know there was even a playground in here, but we saw it from the road," he said. "Today after school, the kids said, 'Can we go to the new playground?' So I brought them here to play for a little while."

Brandon Thomas of Niagara Falls spins children on the new TopseyTurvy spinner on the playground at  DeVeaux Woods State Park. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Both Fletcher Bess and Julie Coulter were impressed with the one-piece spongy flooring of the play area, the latest in knee-protecting technology. "It's genius. I think it's better than grass," Bess said.

"I love the floor," said Coulter. "And if you notice, some parts, like by the slides, are squishier than others."

The rubber safety surface on which the entire playground sits is the only improvement that had to be installed by outside contractors rather than state park workers, said Conti. The surface provides up to 8 feet of fall protection and replaces a bed of soft shredded wood chips.

The wood chips were messy and constant maintenance was needed to keep them in place, Conti said. "One big wind and they'd all be across the street. So this cuts down our maintenance costs big time."

Once the playground at DeVeaux opened, Conti started to hear praise for the safety flooring. "Everybody loves it," he said.

The flooring is designed to look like a forest floor, in keeping with the nature theme of both the DeVeaux Woods and Whirlpool park playgrounds, said Flora. The climbing, swinging and sliding equipment is in natural colors, and decorated with designs of plants, trees and animals.

Lena Coulter, 3, goes down a slide on the new playground at DeVeaux Woods State Park. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

A friendly raccoon peeks out from a hole in the fabricated tree trunk that supports a climbing structure; the top posts of a treehouse and platform area are shaped like pine trees. A custom-made climbing wall for little ones is in the shape of a large, yellow maple leaf.

Hidden features and charming touches fill the park. Children will have to discover that a large funnel-shaped structure will allow them to speak and be heard across the playground. "It's kind of like the old two tin cans and a string," said Conti. A periscope and some steering wheels on raised platforms encourage imaginative play.

"There's a lot to figure out here," Conti said.

The playground, designed for children ages 2 to 12, has separate sections for little children and older ones. It's also inclusive, with several low hand-play maze and sensory stations and transfer plates to help children get onto the structures, said Flora.

Other features include a rope climbing course that is anchored at the bottom, a log-shaped balance beam with mushroom steppers and a climbing net that resembles a spiderweb.

The musical instrument station includes drums, xylophones and a large set of Grandioso chimes. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

One of the most unusual stations in the playground is a set of sturdy, weather-resistant musical instruments, including enormous deep-sounding Grandioso chimes, two xylophones and three drums. The instruments were tuned by a professional, Conti said.

Lena Coulter was "very interested in the musical instruments, and I had fun playing them, too," admitted her mother.

For Ava Thomas, the musical station "was the first thing she went to," said her father, Brandon. Then a maze with silver balls occupied her attention for about 10 minutes – "so far," said Thomas.

Five benches situated around the playground allow adults to rest while they watch their children. "I probably sat on almost every bench while she was playing, and no matter what bench I sat on, I could see her," said Julie Coulter. "There was never a time when my view of her was obstructed."

Signs in the playground educate visitors about the flora and fauna of the park and the Niagara Gorge. One sign asks, "What trees grow in DeVeaux Woods State Park?" and shows several types of leaves. "It's designed to connect kids with nature," said Flora.

Brendan Foley, right, and Jake Regan install the top coat of the spongy safety flooring at Whirlpool State Park's new playground. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Over at Whirlpool State Park, it was still all work and no play as workers carefully installed the spongy safety flooring at the playground, which is located at the north end of the parking lot. When it's finished, that playground also will feature play structures with a woodland theme, including a log crawl-through that includes a carving of a small friend inside, log swings for children ages 2 to 5, a dragonfly teeter-totter and a play structure with three large plastic slides.

Conti said the Whirlpool playground, which was awaiting a few pieces of equipment, could be open by this weekend.

At Reservoir State Park in Lewiston,  an outdoor gym featuring easy-to-use equipment has been installed near the sports courts. That area, which has the poured spongy flooring, includes an elliptical machine, a hand cycler, a chest press and a cardio stepper.

Also at Reservoir, fitness stations are being added every tenth of a mile to the existing 1.2-mile walking trail. The stations, which include balance beams, parallel bars and a rope climb, will be complete toward the end of June, Flora said.

Flora and Conti lauded Cuomo and State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey for their commitment to getting youngsters outside, and the parents enjoying their children's delight were every bit as happy.

The Bess girls don't watch much TV, but they do love using tablets, said Fletcher Bess. Was it good to see them running, jumping and climbing? "Absolutely!" he said. In the summer, he said, "This is going to be one of their favorite spots."

Thomas said in his family, outside play "is a daily thing for us. I like this park." He lives closer to Hyde Park, but said, "I'll drive to go to this one. It's worth it."

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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