Playtime Paradise Family: 1,000 volunteers are building Bel Air's new, $100,000 mega-playground. People all over are doing the same thing, it seems.

June 06, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

For two years, Nancy Castaldo prepared for this moment. Raising money, appointing committees, lining up volunteers.

Yesterday, on a half acre of bare ground near John Carroll High School in Bel Air, Castaldo's persistence paid off: The ultimate playground began rising from three tractor-trailers' worth of pressure-treated lumber.

Castaldo, a mechanical engineer at Aberdeen Proving Grounds and a mother of two young children, rallied over 1,000 volunteers for a meticulously choreographed five-day "build."

The first shift of some 230 laborers toiled smoothly in the bright sun. Lumber was sorted, shaping, and sealed. Boom augers drilled holes. Poles and posts jutted from the red earth.

When it's completed this Sunday, the Rockfield Creative Playground will be a veritable Taj Mahal of recreation, a $100,000 palace of play for hundreds of children.

They'll romp along a rubber bridge, through a playhouse maze, down a fire pole. Along the way, kids from 2 to 12 can take a turn on the bouncing crab, climb into a lighthouse to survey their surroundings, hatch schemes in a tree fort, or in the castle maze, imagine they are kings and queens. And they'll never have to set foot on the ground if they don't want to.

A few decades ago, when Castaldo and her comrades were children, playgrounds generally consisted of a desultory swing set, an isolated slide and one of those self-propelled merry-go-rounds -- if you were lucky.

Today, from Bel Air to Bethesda to Baltimore, spectacular, mega-playgrounds are the order of the day. And the bigger the better.

The playground boom is being driven by two forces: the need for safety and the desire for community.

Once a timeless idyll available to anyone with an alley or backyard, play has become a much more structured and supervised activity. In countless neighborhoods, children are no longer allowed to roam freely.

Too many cars.

Too many strangers who might pose a threat.

Those fears have fueled the swift growth of in-door play spaces at fast-food restaurants, shopping malls and Discovery Zone-style franchises.

But commercial play areas cannot satisfy the craving for common ground, a place where people can come together and feel a sense of belonging. Playgrounds can.

As a result, parents, educators, landscape architects, recreation and child development specialists are teaming up to raise money and build playgrounds to replace the last generation of rusted slides and concrete turtles, and to re-think the asphalt playground model they grew up on.

Leathers & Associates, of Ithaca, N.Y., which designed and is guiding the construction of the Bel Air playground, has helped pioneer the sprawling mazes of tubes, corkscrew slides, platforms, ramps, and towers so popular right now.

More than 1,000 Leathers playgrounds constructed by community volunteers dot the landscape in the United States, Canada and other countries. And they have inspired untold knock-offs in backyards, school yards and public parks.

When Castaldo beheld her first Leathers playground in Florida three years ago, she was sold immediately. She knew, she says, "my kids and other kids would benefit from having one. We just didn't have anything like that [in Bel Air] that was family oriented. I felt it was necessary to do."

To understand her enthusiasm, all you have to do is visit the large, Leathers-esque playground at Cabin John Park in Montgomery County. With its tube slides, tire obstacles and fortresses, the park is a magnet for families from all over suburban Washington.

On a glorious weekday afternoon, Benita Berman marvels at the variety of physical skills her granddaughter Samantha Marshall calls upon as she scampers around the structure. And when the little girl gets behind one of the movable steering wheels attached to the playground, she can "drive" anywhere in the world.

Joan Jurenas has driven half-an-hour from Annandale, Va., with her children, Eric, 6, and Juliana, 4. "This is the treat playground" the family visits several times a year, Jurenas says. Unlike the playground near the family's home, this one "makes them work harder," she says.

Not everyone's a fan

But not everyone is a fan of these super- playgrounds.

Robin Moore bemoans a "lack of information and understanding among the general public about what children's play is all about." If deeper understanding existed, "I don't think Leathers would be so popular," says Moore, president of the International Association for the Child's Right To Play and a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University School Design.

Moore has quizzed adults around the world on favorite childhood memories. She's struck by the commonality of the response.

"Vegetation, dirt, wildlife, playing in the sun, the feeling of freedom and privacy and being together" all played a part in their reminiscences.

TC "It's so predictable, it's something I laugh about," she says. "It's the same in Birmingham, Ala., as it is in Buenos Aires, Argentina."

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