'The playground Caroline built' Project: A fifth-grader's design to improve her school's recreation facilities has surprised and impressed Baltimore County school officials.

June 01, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County might think twice the next time it asks fifth-graders to identify "real-world problems" for class projects.

Caroline Merrey decided the "problem" was her own school's aging playground equipment, which she deemed inaccessible to the handicapped and -- in some places -- unsafe.

Her proposed solution, after months of research, is a state-of-the-art playground with plastic-coated equipment, a raised sandbox, ramps for wheelchairs and a forgiving ground surface of cedar chips. Estimated cost: $30,000.

So convincing was her argument, presented to school officials in a half-hour slide show in April, that an inspector was assigned to the case within days. His conclusion: the 11-year-old was absolutely right.

"She looks at the equipment with a very critical eye, she's very knowledgeable and she doesn't miss a trick . . . " said site inspector Mark Sagi. "I had to pinch myself to remind myself that I was talking to a fifth-grader."

Her project -- "This is the Playground that Caroline Built" -- grew out of an assignment last fall in a gifted and talented class at Oakleigh Elementary School in the county's northeast.

Caroline started thinking about the two children she noticed sitting out recess because they're in wheelchairs.

"I sort of put myself in their position," she said. "They're not doing anything."

She decided that Oakleigh's playgrounds -- a wooden one for younger kids and a metal one for the older -- ought to be accessible by wheelchair. So she embarked on a research venture that made her Oakleigh's very own playground expert, watchdog and lobbyist for safety at recess.

First, she went with her teacher to the Maryland School for the Blind, to interview J. Kirk Walter, whose $40,000 playground won a state award two years ago for handicap accessibility.

"She came in with a camera, a notebook, a tape recorder and her teacher," said Walter, director of external relations. "I thought we'd be done in 15 minutes. An hour later we were still discussing this project. I was a little overwhelmed at how thorough she was."

At that school, where many children have multiple disabilities, Caroline saw what a playground could be: there's a tick-tack-toe board in Braille, swings that children can be strapped into, and a sand-table instead of a sandbox so wheelchairs can get close.

She learned that playground equipment shouldn't be raised more than five feet off the ground. That plastic coating holds up longer than wood and is safer.

And that cedar chips are a more forgiving ground cover -- and allow for better wheelchair movement -- than Oakleigh's sand. "It actually gives to your weight so you go down about two centimeters and come back up, sort of like a mattress," she said.

Back at school, Caroline sent for catalogs, read newspaper articles and interviewed people who had recently built playgrounds.

Site study

Then, armed with a yardstick and inspection forms, she inspected Oakleigh's playgrounds, interviewed classmates and watched them climb, swing and slide.

On the metal playground she found points sticking out of the "cargo net," a climbing apparatus with chain steps. She decided that the highest pullup bar is too high for even the tallest fifth-graders. The parallel bars are too close together for children to swing on and turn around, she explained recently, hanging upside down and turning to prove her point.

On the wooden playground, for kindergarten through second grade, she found cracked, rotting and splintered wood, and "pinch points" where children could get their hands caught. The play horses -- called bucking broncos -- were hard to rock, and one had a broken handle.

Then her lobbying began.

At the General Assembly's PTA night, she met legislators and sought their support and ideas.

For the project fair, she created a painted, model playground from plastic foam, a raised circular structure with two ramps, slides, a sand table and a swing.

And with the help of teacher Donna Sener, Caroline produced a slide show highlighting the problems, to be shown to school system officials.

Meeting called

In April, area superintendent Barbara Kelly called a meeting with a representative of the facilities department, the principal, and other administrators to hear Caroline's presentation.

"She'll argue her case before the Supreme Court someday, I'm convinced," Kelly said.

Days later, Sagi, the inspector, was called as a trouble-shooter to the school, and brought Caroline out of math class to accompany him and point out her concerns. He agreed with most of them, added some of his own, and recommended that the wooden playground needed so many repairs that it would less costly to tear it down and replace it.

Soon, maintenance workers began some repairs. Protruding points were removed from the cargo net. The broken bucking bronco was fixed. Some loose equipment was tightened.

Still, so many similar needs exist countywide that Oakleigh's wooden playground is only No. 15 on the list for replacement. No one knows when that will happen.

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