JUNE 11, 2019 — The children at Cook Inlet Native Head Start are boating in canoes, swimming with a beluga whale, and racing sled dogs. That’s all pretend, of course, in their new culturally-designed playground.
This Anchorage Head Start is a cultural immersion program for Alaska Native and American Indian children from birth to 5 years old. One of the goals at Cook Inlet Native Head Start is to help children develop knowledge and pride in their traditional Native heritage.
“Everything in the playground is used for education,” said Maggie Kaloke, a teacher in the Eagle classroom with children ages 3–5. “We can talk about different cultures and histories with everything on our playground.”
Families from all around Alaska live in Anchorage now, so the playground represents the five major cultural areas of Alaska. The children play on small replicas of a cedar house from the Southeast region; a sod house to represent the Yup’ik and Cup’ik, Alutiiq, and Unangax regions; and whale jawbones from the Iñupiak region. A large Aleutian Islands bentwood hat covers the toddler slide and climbing gym. Picture panels hanging on the fence depict traditional scenes from all over Alaska.
The playground was a whirl of activity, with kids darting back and forth between play areas. Getting a child to stop long enough to find out their favorite activities was nearly impossible. “Climbing” yelled one boy, as he went running to the fishnet rope ladder.
“This playground really gets the kids moving more than our old playground,” said Tiffany Deason, a teacher of 3- to 5-year-olds in the Raven classroom. “It’s designed for climbing, swinging, biking, and racing. The kid’s love it.”
Teachers and staff spent several years planning and designing the playground before it was built during the summer of 2018. A teacher at the center designed the bentwood hat, and another staff member painted the large picture panels that surround the playground.
After playtime, the little kids lined up to go back inside to their classrooms. It was time for lunch. And like the equipment in the playground, meals at Cook Inlet Native Head Start also tie in culture. The kids that day sat down together, family style, and ate reindeer stew.