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Which way is up?

Milwaukie's Waldorf School adds an eye-catching new structure to its historic campus
by: ellen spitaleri, Students at the Portland Waldorf School in Milwaukie clamber over the newly installed hexamid - a

It juts up from the front of the Portland Waldorf School in downtown Milwaukie - a geometrically woven mass of colorful cables that devolves into a Space Mountain-like point.

So what the heck is that thing?

It's called a hexamid, 'like a pyramid, but with six sides,' said Michael Cromie, physical education and movement teacher at the Waldorf School.

The school was given a grant of $50,000 back in 2005, Cromie noted, and a committee was formed to help figure out what kind of playground structure would be appropriate for the school.

Cromie said that he and fellow faculty member Cyndia Ashkar 'took up the job of researching. We asked ourselves what do we want as an ideal playground?'

He said they researched 'cutting edge' play structures in Europe, and came up with the idea of a 'netscape,' which is prevalent in Germany.

'We got excited - the children could climb on it, it's almost tree-like. It's like walking in space, using your hands and arms, orienting yourself in space.

'We were also shooting for an additional challenge for middle schoolers and even high schoolers. Children have a more sedentary life in our culture, and this will help counteract that,' he noted.

He even plans to use the hexamid in his PE classes.

'It's great for stretching out - you can hang from it, pull yourself up, bounce on it and put your leg up and do a hurdler's stretch,' Cromie explained.

In addition, he said, 'Underneath the hexamid is a little play area, where the younger children can gather and do acrobatics and flips. It will be universally enjoyed.'

The structure comes with rules, which were carefully explained to students on the first day of school last week.

Students are encouraged to use the hexamid

Cromie said that the structure is appropriate for students age 8 and up.

'We encourage parents of children 10 years old and under to climb with them. The first time getting used to it is the most likely time to have a slip. When students are climbing, there is a certain element of risk,' he said.

However, he noted, 'There are no long fall zones. The farthest someone could fall would be five and half feet. It has an internal structure that doesn't allow you to fall - there are no direct long-fall zones.'

The hexamid is 18-feet tall, above a wood chip surface. The ropes are the type used in expansion bridges, and are composed of '144 strands of stainless steel woven into each cable,' and then coated with nylon, Cromie explained.

Another advantage to the structure, he said, is its 'play-ability.'

'As many as 60 kids can play at one time - it has the strength factor for that. We will probably limit it to 20 to 25 kids at one time,' he said.

Just under the summit of the structure are six canvas seats, where children can sit, thus enhancing the social aspect of play.

Cromie noted, 'Those little seats form a place where you can congregate and sit and hang out. [The hexamid presents] physical challenges, but it has an imaginative aspect. You can be playful. It can translate into a lot of different activities.'

Building playground a 'monumental' process

Cromie called the process of building a playground 'monumental,' because there were so many decisions to be made. He said there was a lot of volunteer involvement from Waldorf parents and some people from the community, but he noted that professionals actually installed the equipment.

The school purchased the hexamid from Dynamo, a company in Canada that had the 'highest quality product we could find,' Cromie said.

Then the school partnered with Steve Lebwohl's company Wildwood Play Structures, because they wanted to work with a small, local company.

'He was incredibly helpful,' Cromie said.

Waldorf also purchased additional playground structures from Wildwood that Cromie described as 'unique.'

There is a decking structure that children have to work to get to. There are two climbing walls and several kinds of ladders. Once at the top they can slide down two different kinds of slides, including a 'multi-twist' one.

'They can climb up and do some work, and then they get a thrill,' Cromie noted.

The play structure occupies a 6,000-square foot space in front of the school that presented some challenges to the design committee.

Waldorf parent and architect Scott Churchill pointed out that the playground is on a banked hillside, so it was going to be a little more costly than planned.

Cromie said, 'We went back to the donor and he gave us an extra $20,000 - we were able to stay under budget, because Scott did so much volunteer work.'

'I've done some construction management, so I said, 'Let's roll up our sleeves and do this,'' Churchill said, adding that they built a stacked-rock wall around the hexamid that was stabilized with mortar.

Cromie pointed out that the area is a school playground, but becomes a community playground when school is not in session.

He added, 'People are attracted to it and so far are using it safely. Everybody sees it as a common resource and we hope they will want to take care of it that way.'