New ‘playpark’ a ministry, too, pastor says

St. Gabriel preschoolers, from left, Olivia Smith, Skyla Eadens and Madeline
Cureton played on the walking blocks in the natural playpark April 27. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

St. Gabriel School preschoolers shrieked in delight as they flitted from one activity to the next in their school’s new “natural playpark” on the sunny morning of April 27.

These young children were among the first to play on walking blocks made from tree stumps, slides that follow the hillside, a balance beam and other activities offered by the half-acre park-like playground located on the school’s campus, 5503 Bardstown Road.

On May 10 at 4 p.m. others will have the opportunity to play, too, as the St. Gabriel community holds a ribbon-cutting ceremony for parishioners and members of the community.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz will preside at a blessing ceremony that will be followed by a celebration with kids’ activities, food trucks and a gaga ball tournament.

The park provides a safe student recreation space, but it represents much more said Father John Schwartzlose, pastor of St. Gabriel Church during an interview April 27.

The playpark was designed to integrate children’s play with nature and build an appreciation for creation. It’s also open to everyone in the community.

The space is about taking the church into the neighborhood and reaching out to the many families whether they are Catholic or not, said Father Schwartzlose.

The park presents a rare opportunity to invite people to “sit in our prayer garden, just pray with us,” said Father Schwartzlose. The neighbors “are an intentional part of what we’re doing.”

Amanda Wolz, business and development manager at St. Gabriel Church, said in an interview April 27, “This is a pure form of evangelization. You’re inviting them to come and join your Catholic community.”

Preschooler Rowan High sat on one of the springers in the St. Gabriel natural playpark. The park will open May 10. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

The park is made up of more than a dozen play areas, including slides, a  music and tinkering area, a natural path, a lawn, a water play area and a small amphitheater.

The space also features benches and a picnic area with tables and garbage bins made from 10,000 pounds of recycled bottle caps collected by students.

Every play area was designed to help students improve balance, fine and gross motor skills and spatial awareness as they play, said Shelly Pierce, who is the director of the preschool and was involved in planning.

The park also was designed to feel like a natural setting with small trees and shrubs that attract insects and birds. Playing there will teach the children “to be a part of nature,” said Pierce, adding that being in a natural setting helps students with attention challenges.

There are plans to use the space as an outdoor classroom as well, said Pierce.

The park sits behind the preschool and was formerly the site of two homes that have been torn down, said Father Schwartzlose. The children witnessed the entire process, he noted.

They had a “rare opportunity to see something built up,” he said.

Father Schwartzlose said the park fits with what Pope Francis is calling the faithful to do — which is to “respect and nourish the space we’re living in.”

It’s practical to care for the environment, he said, but it’s also spiritual and it’s part of Catholic teaching, said Father Schwartzlose. He hopes the park will “help the kids to get a sense that the world is a gift that they’ll give to someone else.”

Next door to the park is another green space, where there is a prayer garden and where a greenhouse is being built. It’s an extension of the natural playpark and it’s all an effort to protect, maintain and grow the St. Gabriel community, said Father Schwartzlose.

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