Recess will never be the same

Harford effort focuses on improving playgrounds at elementary schools

October 05, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The playground at Havre de Grace Elementary School wasn't very inviting.

It contained metal bars and slides, and it didn't engage the children when they played outside during recess. There were safety concerns, and the play areas were not accessible to the disabled.

"The playground was so antiquated, the county executive remembered that the playground was the same one he played on when he attended the school," said Ginny Popiolek, who has been the supervisor of physical education for elementary and middle schools, and health for K-12, for the past six years.

However, the Havre de Grace Elementary School playground was not the only one that raised concerns. So county school officials devised a master plan to upgrade and modernize all the playgrounds.

With childhood obesity on the rise, county school officials wanted to do things to make physical activities more appealing to the children, Popiolek said.

"I call playgrounds physical labs," Popiolek said. "Childhood obesity and wellness are such areas of concern that we wanted to do something to promote exercise during the school day."

Since the inception of the master plan, several of the county's schools have benefited from new playgrounds. This fall, the latest elementary schools to receive upgraded playgrounds - William Paca/ Old Post Road in Abingdon, Ring Factory in Bel Air, Edgewood, and Magnolia and Riverside, both in Joppa - will be dedicating their new playgrounds.

And this year, the school system plans to complete playgrounds at George D. Lisby in Aberdeen, Norrisville in White Hall, Churchville and a second playground at Riverside.

Money for the playgrounds comes from various sources. This year, the county's school system allotted about $100,000 toward the project, an amount that is matched by Parks and Recreation, Popiolek said. Other money comes from grants, donations from individual school PTAs and the county, she said.

To create the master plan, which was updated this summer, school officials looked at the motor development of children at different age levels and created systemwide standards for the county's 33 elementary school playgrounds, Popiolek said.

Each elementary school will have three playground areas, she said.

The first section is for early childhood, which includes children in preschool and kindergarten. The equipment includes activities where children climb stairs, balance, slide and swing.

The second area is designed for first- and second-graders. Children who use this equipment are building their motor skills, Popiolek said. The equipment includes an apparatus for rock climbing.

The third playground area is constructed for children in third through fifth grade. The equipment includes hanging pieces designed to help build upper body strength.

"Our main goal is to increase activity," Popiolek said. "People need activity no matter what their age.

"Why do any of us work out, or take a walk? It's because activity gives us more energy. When you have energy, you are more prepared for learning."

When Earl Gaskins, the principal at Ring Factory, arrived at the school two years ago, the playground used by the kindergarteners and first- and second-graders was antiquated and unsafe. There were drainage problems, and the play surface wasn't level, he said.

"The teachers had to really keep an eye on where the kids were playing," Gaskins said. "And when they got in an area that wasn't safe, they would direct the children to other areas."

Now the playground has a new drainage system, new grass and larger, age-appropriate fixtures and play areas.

Activity on the playground at Ring Factory Elementary - which dedicated a new playground in September - has drastically increased, Gaskins said.

"The kids love the new playground," he said. "They have more room to play, and they don't have to wait in line. The kids don't get a lot of time at recess, so when they have to wait to do something, they don't get a lot of activity."

But inactivity is a problem of the past, he said. At recess, the children spread out and move throughout their break, he said. Some kids don't get enough time on the playground during the school day, so they play on it after school, he said.

The equipment includes stations that offer children a place to test the temperature or look through a telescope, as well as sliding boards and climbing equipment.

"The best thing about the new playground is that the children can grow with it," Gaskins said.

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