Feature Article - January 2006
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Play to Live, Live to Play

Playground development, from design to construction and beyond

By Kyle Ryan

Part of the success at both Ellis and Chaires was the involvement of the students. Ellis had a student advisory committee, and students suggested their own ideas at Chaires. When McKinley Elementary in inner-city Newark began its playground project with the Trust for Public Land, the kids played a big role.

"That's actually central to our program," says Susan Clark, director of public affairs for the Trust for Public Land. "Our view and belief is that, if we could wave a magic wand and put playgrounds wherever they were needed, we still wouldn't do that, because when you have a community investment—and in particular the children, the folks who are going to use the playground—

the likelihood of that resource lasting goes up tremendously."

During the three-month design process, the kids surveyed their classmates, worked with the community and dealt directly with designers. They created a playground model using construction paper and pipe cleaners, among other things, to get a better sense of the space. They went out on field trips to survey other playgrounds.

"In this particular case, we kind of had to go even more back to basics than we do in every other case because we had kids who had never even seen a working swing set," Clark says. "They didn't know what that was; they needed to go out to sites and see other playgrounds to be able to even comprehend what they might want and might be able to do at their site."

Surprisingly, the kids' top requests were trees, a water fountain and a splash play area.

"Kind of in the beginning, we'd have kids say they want roller coasters and swimming pools and ponds and all kinds of things, which is great, they're really using their imagination," Clark says. "But then they'll say, 'Well, we realize that we didn't have it in the budget to do those things.' So they're using math skills and brain skills, looking at 'Where is this water going to drain in this?' and 'What kinds of slopes can you have?'"

Before the construction, McKinley's playground consisted of a barren asphalt lot where some teachers parked, with a fire hydrant inexplicably placed in the middle of it. When the project was completed in 2002, the area had a stunning reversal: It now included a large track with artificial-turf field in the middle of it, a splash play area, climbing equipment and more.

The sense of ownership fostered in the children through the creative process also ensures a certain amount of respect for what they created.

"These kids are going to be less likely to spray graffiti or tear up grass or what have you because they were part of the process," Clark says.

Community involvement sparked another playground project for the TPL at Newark's Mildred Helms Park. The inner-city park, which an neighboring elementary school used for play time, had fallen into disrepair due to neglect. A grassroots community group similar to the Friends of Alta Plaza Park came together to renovate the space that now resembles the playground at McKinley Elementary. That community involvement pays dividends to protect the park and make sure it gets used, so it makes sense to cast a wide net when seeking input to plan a playground. The Friends of Alta Plaza Park held several community meetings to hear suggestions. Matioli says it works as long as a small group of people can help push things along.

"In terms of actually planning all this stuff, you can't have a huge group," she says. "There has to be a smaller group guiding certain efforts. Although you need the support of the whole community, which I have to say we have been so lucky that we received."

Once general requests have been received, like a splash area favored by McKinley's students, the real planning can get under way—and that's where safety, accessibility and other issues come into play.