Hastings’ summer playground program in its 82nd year
The children jog around the marked game area before beginning their daily CATCH activity.
Youngsters have been attending the playground program through the YMCA of Barry County for many generations. This year marks the program's 82nd year in existence.
The program was initially started by the Hastings Youth Council in 1937 to provide summer activities for children in the area. According to YMCA records, 30 interested parents in the area formed the council and raised the money through contributions and federal Works Progress Administration grants to provide supervision on three school playgrounds.
Activities were halted during World War II, but in 1946 Hastings High School coach Bob King became director of the YMCA program and activities were expanded to include youth dances and some handicraft classes. Activities also included swimming, softball and hiking, sewing and storytelling. According to Youth Council clippings in the J-Ad Graphics archives, summer playground Director Warren Williams began conducting a city-wide interest survey of all children of junior high age and below in 1947 to determine the interests of the children. He felt it was necessary to offer activities that interested the children.
Among the offerings were basketball, ping-pong, rope jumping, track, soccer, boxing, singing, jacks, parades and croquet. Charles Govin, the local high school industrial arts instructor, was hired in 1947 to teach handicrafts at the playgrounds during that summer, bringing a “highly educational value” to the program.
As the eight-week program grew through the years, activities such as horseback riding, tumbling, volleyball, archery, field events, and others were added. Baseball leagues were organized and tournaments held. Carnivals were offered for the campers and a yearly picnic brought the summer program to a close each year.
It was not uncommon to see total attendance at all events and sessions collectively topping the 10,000 mark (including repeat visitors) in the summers of the late 1940s. Children would earn points for participation in activities, and a free bicycle was given away at the end of the program. A high point for the children was the day tour through the Kist pop and ice cream factory, where the children got to see how refreshments were made and enjoyed a free treat on the house.
In 1950, Lewis Lang was named playground director. Several locations boasted a summer playground in the 1950s and 1960s. Southeastern and Northeastern elementary schools, Rutland Township, Central School/Jr. High and the First Ward Park across from Hastings Manufacturing were full of kids playing.
Free Red Cross swimming instruction was offered and taught by Dave Vender, and children were bussed to the YMCA camp at Algonquin Lake for the swim sessions. Total summer attendance rose to 12,000-13,000 during the 1950s.
“Summer playground was a large part of our family summer activity,” Lang’s daughter Cindy Wilcox said. “My dad was director for many years, and our mother [Sue Lang] ran Central playground for a number of years, which was directly across the street from our home. My two sisters and I spent five days a week at summer playground and later worked on the playground for years.”
Movies shown at the Central Auditorium were a big hit. The Tot Lot for preschoolers was added in the 1950s at the First Ward park and was well attended. An excerpt from a Hastings Banner article read, “An average of 37 children enjoyed the lot in the morning – and probably that many mothers, too.”
Scavenger and peanut hunts, pet and doll shows, junior Olympic games between playground sites, picnics, soap box derbies added to the programs. Parades, with themes such as “On Wheels”, circus and characters, offered prizes for the most original, prettiest and most unusual costumes.
“During my time there, braiding lanterns was an ongoing activity which many worked diligently to master,” Wilcox said. “It was great fun, and the Hastings community was fortunate to have had such great summer programs.”
From 1981 to 2006, as director of the YMCA, Dave Storms oversaw the playground program, which was still offered to any child free of charge. Storms said he has fond memories of wonderful directors such as Bernie Oom, Dave Steif, Cindy Wilcox, Lindy Bolthouse and Jan Bowers.
“I think my favorite thing was the special events at the end of each week,” Storms said. “The Olympics were especially memorable.”
Storms told of weekly field trips to museums, water parks, zoos and baseball games at the end of each week. He also recalled the annual Fourth of July parade, where children on their decorated bikes and wagons celebrated as a neighborhood.
Storms said baseball and softball teams were organized and played in the afternoons, coached by area school teachers and coaches before official school teams were in play.
“They offered kids a way to learn the skills needed to play the sports,” he said. “When the schools started their organized teams, the playground program adjusted its hours. We just provided what was needed at the time and adapted as times changed.”
Today, youngsters age 5 to 12 still enjoy the organized, active and safe program run by the YMCA at Southeastern Elementary School. Program and recreation director Gina McMahon said it is offered for six weeks Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and now includes free lunch provided through the Meet Up & Eat Up program.
Children check in and have unstructured play on the playground until 9:45, when they participate in the CATCH program, which stands for Coordinated Approach to Child Health. Activities during this segment of the day are planned to teach that physical activity is not all work, and can be fun.
“We are trying to keep them moving and active,” McMahon said. “Physical activity increases brain health and academic performance as well as endurance and physical health.
The students enjoy active, fun games which encourage teamwork, character and good sportsmanship. They learn about healthy choices and habits that last a lifetime. The children also participate in arts and crafts and science, technology, engineering and mathematics projects.
According to YMCA Director Jon Sporer, the City of Hastings continues to support the playground program, and the CATCH curriculum is paid in part by an MDHHS grant received in 2017, making it completely free for every child.
The Barry Intermediate School District has coordinated with the YMCA to offer the summer playground program in Delton to extend hours after summer school this year. The program runs from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
McMahon hires four employees each summer, who watch for the children's safety, build relationships and have fun with them. Recent TK graduate, Grace Hauschild saw an opening for the counselor job in a school advertisement and was hired. The summer job will keep her busy before going off to college at Western Michigan University to study music education.
“I have really enjoyed it so far,” she said during the first week. “Creating relationships with the kids is my favorite part. It's giving me great experience. As a music teacher, I will have to learn to be able to relate to all ages.”
She also appreciates fellow staff members.
“It is nice to have co-workers that you actually like to be with,” Hauschild said about her first summer job. “It is a very well-run program.”
More information about this long-running quality program can be obtained by calling the YMCA, 269-945-4574. The program is free, but registration is mandatory.