Facility Profile - November 2003
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A Tale of Two Playgrounds

Franklin County Family YMCA
Rocky Mount, Va.

Altavista Area YMCA
Altavista, Va.

By Jenny E. Beeh

If you think a place with a name like Rocky Mount, Va., situated on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sounds like a picturesque spot, you would be right. In fact, the town's new crown jewel of a playground at the Franklin County Family YMCA offers kids a stunning view from its 24-foot tower: On a clear day you can see 15 miles down the green valley.

In a region hit hard economically by industrial mill closures, the new playground has had a positive impact on the public at large.

"People [treat] this playground like it's this community's amusement park," says Russ Merritt, executive director of the Franklin County Family YMCA. "The playground has been very heavily used. People come from 20 to 30 miles. It's the largest play facility in the county, probably in a 50-mile radius."

The $80,000 playground (actually two play areas, a main structure for kids 5 to 12 and a smaller one for kids 2 to 5) was adopted by the Rotary Club of Rocky Mount, which joined forces with the YMCA to raise funds for the project.

With the funding in place, the planners began focusing on a design concept and selecting a manufacturer and play components.

"We wanted someone who could work closely with us in the design phase," Merritt says. So the Y turned to HAGS Play USA, a Division of Playpower, Inc. in St. Louis, which not only helped select the playground but also installed it.

"We were looking for the three Fs: fun, fantasy and fitness," Merritt says of the playground's goals. While the fun factor is an obvious aim for any playground, the fantasy element is just as crucial.

"The imagination's role in play is very, very important to a child," Merritt says. "We wanted the structure to be used by kids' minds in different ways—a pirate ship, a castle, mountain climbing. The facility lends itself to a child's imagination. Adults forget how much fun an imagination can be."

As for fitness, that comes from the careful selection of play elements.

"The kids don't realize they're exercising while they're exercising," Merritt says. The playground designer chose plenty of climbing and overhand activities to encourage building upper-body as well as leg strength.

"Community fitness, especially as it relates to young people, is important to us at the Y," Merritt says. Of course, coupled with fun and fantasy, fitness comes easier.

With the playground in play, future plans for the site include adding more landscaping like shade trees and hopefully a picnic shelter next summer. Already, though, the playground has become a big hit in the county.

"YMCAs have traditionally not done a lot with outdoor playgrounds, at least in our part of the world," Merritt says. "This playground is great for us because Ys tend to be member-based and indoor-based. By having this outdoor playground open to the public, it's helped with our outreach to the wider community."

You could say part of that wider community extended to Steve Jester, executive director of the Altavista Area YMCA Family Center, about 50 miles down the road in Altavista, Va. After a site visit to Franklin County's playground, Jester was impressed enough to tackle a playground project for his Y. He, too, enlisted the help of HAGS Play USA.

In Altavista's case, the Y needed to replace an aging playground for its childcare program, which serves kids from 16 months to 7th grade.

"Altavista is a town of 3,000—it's a very small community, so the playground and the Y are a big deal here," Jester says. "The playground is really set up for our licensed childcare programs."

Of course, it also attracts the public at large.

"It's a very striking structure," Jester says. "It has instant appeal to children with the towers. There are lots of components that let the children be creative. It's safe and it's bright and it's colorful."

Like Franklin County, there are actually two separate structures, one for preschoolers and one for school-age kids. The Altavista Area Y won a grant from the Timken Foundation in Canton, Ohio, which covered the project's $90,000 price tag. That funding was crucial or else the playground might still be on the drawing board.

"Without the grant, it would have been tough," Jester says.

After deciding to donate the existing playground to a local church, planners shopped around for a replacement that would not only be engaging for the kids but serve the Y over the long haul.

"We've always tried to purchase the best possible equipment within reason," Jester says. "We try not to get hung up on price."

The new Altavista playground is situated behind the Y, with a creek that runs behind it and adjacent to athletic fields.

Sounds like another picture-perfect spot for a playground.

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