Student-designed playground dedicated in Baltimore Co. 7th-grader wanted area for friends in wheelchairs

November 15, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County girl's two-year drive to create a playground that could be used by her disabled friends became reality yesterday when she returned to her old elementary school to help dedicate one of the county's premier places to play.

What was a small, old playground with wood and metal equipment is now an expansive, colorful array of plastic slides, climbing bars and miniature diggers at Oakleigh Elementary School.

"It's so exciting to see something I worked on for so long actually be built," said 12-year-old Caroline Merrey, now a seventh-grader at Pine Grove Middle School.

Two years ago, Caroline noticed that her school playground was unsafe as well as inaccessible to students with disabilities -- especially for two pupils in wheelchairs who were forced to sit on the side as others played.

So when she was asked to think up a "real-world problem" as an enrichment project for her fifth-grade gifted-and-talented class, the playground seemed to be a natural choice.

Working with her teacher, Donna Sener, Caroline visited other playgrounds -- including an award-winning design at the Maryland School for the Blind -- and created a model that would be safer, more durable and accessible to all students.

To turn that model into an actual playground, Caroline needed far more than the typical school fund raising.

While the PTA raised $2,500, Caroline also learned the tricks of lobbying county and state officials and educators to round up the rest of the money. The final cost for the equipment and installation was about $100,000.

Yesterday, many of those same politicians and school officials -- attended the dedication of the "Merrey Little Playground," joining Oakleigh's 540 students in praising and thanking Caroline.

"What's really exciting is not only that you have a new playground, but the fact that one of the students had the idea and had all those skills to solve the problems to get the new playground," Baltimore County schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione told the students.

County educators say Caroline has set a standard for the creative thinking and dedication encouraged by the enrichment program.

She also has raised the bar for what county elementary schools will want in playgrounds. Just about every piece of equipment is accessible to students with disabilities. Ramps lead from the school to the playground and sand has been replaced with wood chips that can be crossed by wheelchairs.

The centerpiece of the new playground is a large plastic structure of bridges, towers, climbing areas and four slides, including a large green wave-slide.

"A lot of schools want new playgrounds, and now they're all going to be saying, 'We want what Oakleigh has or something better,'" said Mark Sagi, a field representative of the district's office of operations.

The new playground is drawing rave reviews.

"It's really cool," said third-grader Steven Novotny, 8. "It's a lot more fun than the old playground. There's a lot more to do."

Even Caroline said she's looking forward to playing on the new equipment. "I still like to run around and have fun," she said.

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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