Richard Sloan and friends raise a new playground

David Briggs
The new playground at Lagunitas School will feature Victorian-inspired designs envisioned by longtime school board trustee Richard Sloan and built with ample help from the community. “This couldn’t have been done without them,” he said of his team.   

If it’s a weekday and sunny in the San Geronimo Valley, it’s safe to say that Richard Sloan is at the Lagunitas School, guiding the replacement of the upper campus’s playground by a team of volunteers. The Victorian-inspired village envisioned by the 81-year-old contractor and longtime school board trustee is his “Sistine Chapel,” as Principal Laura Shain put it.

Since the last incarnation was demolished in April, Mr. Sloan has been there almost every day of the week, calibrating designs, ordering and receiving construction materials and coordinating with the project’s three other leads: teacher Anita Collison, contractor Mike Stanley and architect Theresa Tamley.

On a recent Friday afternoon, as parents were swooping up their students at the curbside, Mr. Sloan sat under the gazebo near the Open Classroom, plotting the following day’s big volunteer event. Ms. Collison, just back from a camping trip with her students, remembered to tell him that an order of decorative shingles was due soon.

“Picked up and stained,” Mr. Sloan directed his colleagues, who grinned at his commandeering style.

“He’s the heart and soul,” Ms. Collison said a few days later. “He takes people’s input and support, but the vision of the playground and all of its majestic audacity is from his creative mind. We’ve had some setbacks and some challenges, but all throughout that, he’s been really positive and upbeat. We’re all following his lead.”

The project has involved 100 parents, alumni parents, teachers, the local Lions Club and other community members dedicated to creating an imaginative and modernized playground. It’s also the third edition Mr. Sloan has helped to create, starting with the school’s original playground, built in 1972. 

This time, he’s leaned into his architectural fancy, envisioning a system of interconnected wooden structures that pop with ornate and abstract shapes. The color burgundy appears on strips of shingles that wrap around roofs and on handrails. 

And though the swings and slides will return, there will also be newer “events”—playground jargon for the newer structures designed to improve a child’s depth perception and balance. A line of swing rings will be installed, as will a “swiggle stix bridge,” on which kids can climb across swinging pods. In response to requests, there will be a net structure for climbing, shaped like a three-dimensional star and placed in the middle of the grounds.

All of the designs are Victorian, reflecting an appreciation for the era that Mr. Sloan traces to his interest in wood carving. “It’s a high point of woodworking,” he said. “I always marvel at the Victorians in San Francisco because those workers did that without using any power tools.”

A bond measure passed in the valley a few years ago is funding the project.

Ms. Collison, who has taught in the school’s Open Classroom program for 12 years, coordinates the project’s volunteers. Last Saturday, she said about 30 people, including contractors and carpenters, lent their skills. “A lot of these people don’t even have kids in the program,” she said. “I have this one person helping with the detail and handrails and his kids didn’t even go through here! They went to school over the hill. He’s coming and supporting our community regardless. He’s part of this community and feels like participating. It’s basically an old-fashioned barn-raising.”

Planning for the project started last summer, but was set back when Mr. Sloan suffered a stroke at the playground. He said he was waiting in his car for a delivery of fencing when he felt a sharp pain in his head.

“It felt like somebody was driving a spike into the back of my head and moved it around like an icepick,” he said.

Fortunately, a school employee was walking nearby and called for help. Mr. Sloan was rushed to the hospital, where the emergency room doctor told him the swift response had prevented extensive damage. The stroke left his vision impaired, primarily in his left eye, hindering his ability to steer the project. He enlisted Mr. Stanley, a Novato-based contractor, to help coordinate the construction and then later Ms. Tamley for architectural guidance.     

“This couldn’t have been done without them,” he said.

He also gives credit to Andrew and Antony Giacomini, Kevin Meade and Amy Valence, who Mr. Sloan said helped him built the first playground. 

Back then, though only in his second year as a trustee, he was already an outspoken supporter of Open Classroom and “different approaches to education,” in which he said he developed an interest while at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Since then, he’s steadfastly championed the Open Classroom program, which focuses on student choice and self-advocacy. Mr. Sloan also cast the sole dissenting vote against shutting down the school’s Waldorf program in 2014. “It was a good program and we should have kept it,” he said.

Even though his own three children are grown, Mr. Sloan said he remains on the board to ensure there’s a continued voice for non-traditional educational programs.

After a year of construction and planning, the playground is nearing completion. Handrails and ladders need to be added and the structures aren’t yet fully interconnected, but the to-do list shrinks every day.

“It’ll be another couple of weeks,” he said, flashing a smile. “We are close.”