Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Ed Lewandowski November 30, 2021
UD and Delaware Sea Grant project brings Tidewater Park playground to Laurel
Visitors to Laurel, Delaware, will find a new playground in Tidewater Park showcasing some of the history and folklore of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe thanks to a joint project from the University of Delaware, Delaware Sea Grant (DESG) and the Town of Laurel.
The Nanticoke are the original inhabitants of the areas around Laurel. In Algonquian, the language prominently used by American Indian tribes of the Northeastern United States, Nanticoke means the tidewater people or the people of the tidewater. Because of this, the playground on Tidewater Park will honor the people of the tidewater and help to tell their stories to a new generation.
Ed Lewandowski, who is the community development specialist for DESG and coordinator of UD’s Sustainable Coastal Communities Initiative, spearheaded the project for DESG. He said that the playground is one more element to the larger Laurel waterfront redevelopment plan, known as the Ramble, which started in 2014.
“This is part of a much larger development plan for that parcel of land where we have done site assessments, environmental assessments, a stormwater feasibility study; we put in a bioswale and a constructed wetland, which looks amazing in full bloom and holding birds, frogs and even juvenile fish,” said Lewandowski. “There is a walking path all the way around it, and the play pieces will be set within that context so it’s going to be just an amazing area. Truly, an attraction for the town.”
The playground will have play features in four sections highlighting Nanticoke stories, using symbols such as the rainbow crow, the beaver, the squirrel, and the giant turtle, seen in a toddler sandlot. Each feature will be accompanied by a plaque telling the story that it represents along with QR codes that allow curious visitors to learn more about the stories from a traditional storyteller using their smartphones.
In addition to the playground, the area also features parent-friendly amenities, such as walking paths.
Jules Bruck, professor in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the director of UD’s landscape architecture program, came up with the initial design for the playground and said that as she dug into the history of Laurel, it became important for her to design the playground with the Nanticoke in mind.
Both Lewandowski and Bruck worked with Sterling Street, coordinator of the Nanticoke Indian Museum; Ragghi Calentine, the tribe’s storyteller; and other members of the Nanticoke to verify and decide on which Nanticoke stories to feature as part of the playground.
“The Tidewater people, the Nanticoke, were the first inhabitants of this land,” said Bruck. “A historical marker in town shares information about the location of a wading place along the river that the Nanticoke people used. So I thought, ‘Let me honor these indigenous people who treated the land so carefully.’ ”
A traditional blessing ceremony was held for Tidewater Park on Thursday, Oct. 21, led by members of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe, as the section of the playground featuring the beaver and the giant turtle in a toddler sandlot have now been installed.
Street is hopeful that visitors to the playground will enjoy the legends and stories of the Nanticoke and that it will inspire them to learn more about the history of the Nanticoke.
“A lot of people don’t know the history of the Nanticoke River and its tributaries,” said Street. “They also don’t know that the town of Laurel was where our Broad Creek Reservation was. It’s very important for our history to be part of Laurel history and the State of Delaware’s history.”
Jamie Smith, Laurel town manager, served as the town representative on the committee to help bring the playground to fruition and said that she is hopeful that the playground will honor the history of the Nanticoke in Laurel as well as draw visitors to the community.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the Ramble project completed, which includes new homes and new businesses,” said Smith. “This park is one of the many things that we want to be able to offer to attract people to come to our town and then hopefully, if they visit and play in the playground, they’ll say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t mind living here.’ ”
Bruck said that the process of designing and imagining the playground began in 2016. She worked with Olivia Kirkpatrick, a UD alumna who graduated in 2018, on the original design for the playground, and Kirkpatrick did some of the original drawings for the playground while an undergraduate student at UD.
The actual playground equipment for the park was designed and built by the Texas-based firm of Kompan Playground Fitness and Solutions. The equipment was built with a focus on making it available to all users and adhering to all Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. Also, in keeping with the nature-based theme, many of the play features have been fabricated from wood.
The four different sections of the playground tells its own unique story and is geared toward children of a certain age group. There are sections designed for children 4 and under, 4 to 8 years of age, 5 to 12 years of age and a section for all ages.
Each section will explain the folklore and the significance of the featured animals to the Nanticoke. For instance, in the section of the playground that features the beaver, not only can children and visitors play on a big beaver and an adjacent log scramble, but they can also learn the Nanticoke story of how the beaver got his tail.
Scheduled for installation in the future, the centerpiece of the playground will be the Rainbow Crow, a slide that stands 16 feet high and 30 feet wide. The story of the Rainbow Crow is one about selflessness, as the crow was once a bird of magnificent colors who sang a beautiful song, until one day, when all the other animals needed fire for warmth, he flew up to the sun to get fire. This not only burned all of his colors away, but it also left him with a hoarse voice.
After working on the concept for more than five years, Bruck said that she is excited to see the playground come to fruition.
“It took a long time, but it will have been worth the wait,” said Bruck. “I’m really hoping that it drives some energy toward finishing the entire Ramble plan in Laurel and makes a positive difference in their community.”