The equation was simple for Lezlie Waltz’s gifted class in the Raymore-Peculiar district. The class wanted a project — preferably one that touched and uplifted other children in the community.
At the same time, the staff of the Ronald McDonald House, some 20 miles away on Hospital Hill, wanted to add some activities for the younger kids staying there.
Half a year later, both groups have their wish.
Ronald McDonald House has an interactive indoor playground complete with dance music and a quiet reading hutch for kids whose brothers and sisters are facing serious illnesses. The fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders have the satisfaction of being able to say, “I did that.”
“It was a great opportunity to make a change in our community and help out the kids who are stressed out just have some fun,” said sixth-grader Larisa Wratney, as she stood with her friends Kerstin Randolph, Claire Eberhart and Lauren Davis inside the black and white owl that forms the centerpiece of the playground.
About 20 kids and their parents made a trip to the Ronald McDonald House on Saturday to get a look at their work completely assembled for the first time. The 20- by 26-foot area was done with donated materials from Lowe’s and Hallmark, and with the help of an anonymous donor. Jim Dietz of Lowe’s and artist Chris Duh of Shawnee provided technical and artistic direction.
It is the longest-running project to date by the class, Waltz said.
It began last spring, when her fifth- and sixth-graders started looking for a new project. The previous year, the gifted class built doghouses to donate to senior citizens, Waltz said.
After a brainstorming session last spring, the class decided to focus its next project on the Ronald McDonald House, which provides a place to stay for families of sick or injured children being treated in Kansas City.
The facility houses 41 families, so there can be from 30 to 50 children — both outpatients and siblings of sick children — at any one time, said April Hudson, programs and operations director.
The Ronald McDonald House already had an air hockey table and a game console, but not much for the younger kids, Hudson said.
Waltz’s class teamed up with Duh, principal designer for Hallmark’s Kaleidoscope. Duh and the kids decided to divide the space into zones with different purposes.
In one area, visitors can go inside the eight-foot-tall owl. By touching the shiny metal inside the owl, a visitor can activate 10 pieces of energetic dance music composed by Waltz’s class.
A few feet away is an A-frame where youngsters can sit quietly and read. One half of the outside is a large piece of metal with word magnets for arranging sentences. Duh said he may later add some magnetized blocks and other toys to be used with it.
The playroom also has a house-like structure with a peg board where kids can play by inserting the caps from colored magic markers. A small decorative train sits in front, which will provide storage for more toys, Duh said.
Many of the materials were donated or recycled. Pressed board came from packing materials at Lowe’s and other bits and pieces, including the marker caps, came from Kaleidoscope.
The class began building and painting the pieces last spring. Students spent this fall composing the music. The whole thing was assembled at the Ronald McDonald House.
The class also created some animation, but their cartoons weren’t used in the play room. Duh said they may be a part of the next Ronald McDonald House being built just across the street.
The project spanned two school years, with some seventh-graders who started it coming back to help finish, Waltz said. Altogether, about 80 students participated in the play space.
Duh also had the help of Henry Bergin, 17, of Kansas City. Bergin, who is home schooled, did much of the electronics and wiring of the touch sensors, and also helped the kids work with software for the music.
Work on the project covered a lot of areas, said Waltz. Students researched how colors affect moods, used math for the measuring and designing and learned how to compose instrumental music, for example.
“We call it project-based learning,” she said. “It’s one of the best ways to learn.”
Students used their own strengths to tackle the problems posed by the project. “They also grew in creativity, which is something businesses say they want,” Waltz said.
Gloria Hoffman of Raymore, whose fifth-grade daughter Alisan worked on the project, agreed.
“I think it’s important for kids to learn at a young age to get involved in the community,” she said. “It lifts their limits as they get older of what they can do.”
Alexis Carver, a sixth-grader from Peculiar, was just happy to help out the kids who are dealing with a family illness.
“It gives kids a chance to forget about what’s going on and just a chance to be kids,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Aidan Payne and Braden Zaner, both sixth-graders from Raymore. Said Braden, “They’re having hard times and some pain. Here they can just have fun — .”
“Because every kid should!” added Aidan.