Facility upgrades are child's play

County hopes improved playgrounds will also improve kids' health

April 08, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

A 2002 assessment of playgrounds at the county's 33 public elementary schools showed that many had outdated and potentially unsafe equipment.

"Some of the playgrounds contained the original equipment that was installed when the schools were built," said Ginny Popiolek, the supervisor of physical and health education for county schools.

The result is a five-year plan for upgrading, expanding and replacing the equipment at several of the schools.

Under the plan - which began last year as a collaboration between the school system and the Department of Parks and Recreation - schools are selected for upgrades that range from $60,000 for new equipment to a $400,000 project at Hall's Cross Roads Elementary that includes athletic fields and a walking trail, Popiolek said.

In addition to the consideration of safety and modernization, the project was initiated as a response to growing concerns about childhood obesity.

"Currently, the playgrounds at some schools are sparse, and the children at the schools aren't motivated to play during recess," Popiolek said.

But another objective is to give elementary students a place to develop interactive and socialization skills.

"We want to build the playgrounds because they are learning labs for the children," Popiolek said. "While playing, children can learn to climb, build their strength - but also how to share and take turns."

Money for the project is coming from several state and county sources, said Arden McClune, chief of capital planning and development for Parks and Recreation.

The project began last year with upgrades at four schools, and will continue through 2009. This year, playgrounds at eight schools are being upgraded. In 2008, 10 schools will be improved, and in 2009, 12 schools will get new equipment, Popiolek said.

The upgrades are long overdue, said Chris Cook, principal at Joppatowne Elementary, where an upgrade was completed last year.

"Some of the old equipment we had was installed when the school opened in 1968," Cook said. "It didn't cater to the needs of the kids, and they weren't motivated to exercise at recess."

At a cost of about $80,000, the equipment includes features designed to appeal to children of all ages, said Cook, a former physical education teacher. Joppatowne's playground includes several slides, an artificial rock-climbing wall, stationary rings and a bridge.

"We need to have playgrounds that capture children motivationally," Cook said. "Obesity studies show that children are not exercising on their own on a regular basis. We need to help motivate them to move around and be active."

Since the upgrade was completed, Cook said, he has noticed a difference in the activity level when children are outdoors.

"The kids saw it being built, and once it was completed they were excited to play outdoors," he said. "They really seem to enjoy it."

The biggest project this year is scheduled for Hall's Cross Roads Elementary, where plans call for a large, elaborate playground and athletic fields, McClune said.

"There was very little existing equipment on the playground," said McClune. "There was a drainage problem and a pathetic chicken-wire backstop. We decided that we needed to just redo the whole area."

After $400,000 was secured, plans were drawn to create two playgrounds at the school, one for students in kindergarten through second grade and one for grades three through five.

A half-mile asphalt walking trail, a soccer field, and a baseball diamond also will be built.

"The Hall's Cross playground and athletic fields will serve the school and the community," McClune said. "The current conditions of the school playground are poor, to say the least, and we need to give these children adequate play opportunities because there aren't an abundant amount of parks in the area."

Most important, the playgrounds are being upgraded to get children climbing and running, she said.

"There is a whole gamut of ways to get kids moving, and this is one of them," she said. "Playgrounds have been low on the list of priorities, and we need to change that."

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