Student’s Vision Comes to Life in Honduras

[UW-Madison news release]


CONTACT: Sam Dennis, 608-263-7699,; Curt Staats, 608-274-3636,


MADISON – One of the failings of university learning is that the work of students is often left on the shelf. Assignments, though faithfully completed, rarely make it out of the theoretical.

So imagine the thrill for Curt Staats, a University of Wisconsin-Madison senior majoring in landscape architecture, to stand in a remote Honduran village and see one of his school projects come alive in grass, sand and stone.

Under the direction of UW-Madison landscape architecture professor Sam Dennis, Staats designed a children’s playground for the townspeople of Orica, a small village in central Honduras where his church has done service work. Last winter, he and Dennis led a group of UW-Madison students and community volunteers to the Central American country to begin building the playground, and now they’re headed back. The group of 25, including seven landscape architecture students, will depart Madison on Monday, Jan. 5, for the two-week service-learning trip.

“This is really the first big project I’ve worked on,” says Staats, a former woodworker who returned to school to study landscape design. “It’s pretty exciting to see it come together.”

The playground grew from a collaboration between Staats’ church, Blackhawk Church of Verona, and a church in Orica. After hearing Orica’s mayor describe the need for a place for children to play, Staats volunteered to lay out plans for a playground and park on a triangular patch of city land.

To create a design for the park, Staats took lessons from Dennis’ work on children’s play areas, which rely on natural features such as trails and plantings to stimulate creative play. He also drew inspiration from pictures drawn by children in Orica, who were asked to imagine what their future playground might look like. He then raised money to buy play structures and equipment, which has slowly been making its way to Honduras.

In Honduras, students are working side-by-side with local laborers to make that design a reality. On this trip, the group will plant gardens, pour cement for a central plaza and haul sand from a nearby river to fill sandboxes.

The experience of sharing labor on a project proves as educational as any lesson on design principles, says Dennis. “We’re carrying blocks or digging a trench together, and that becomes a way for us to have something in common,” he says. “It’s a true partnership that continues to deepen over time.”

The playground is one of two projects slated for the trip. Students will also spend several days in the highland city of Siguatepeque, which was the focus of Dennis’ recent open-space planning and design course. The group will build new trails in a central city park as part of a plan to help protect the environmental integrity of the heavily used natural area.

Staats is hopeful that the week of work in Orica will be enough to finish the children’s playground. But even if the students can’t complete everything, he knows the space won’t sit empty.

“The last time we were there, we went back to the park one evening and the kids were already using it,” he says. “That’s the most inspiring part – to see people catch the vision of what we’re trying to do.”

– Michael Penn, 608-262-2679,