Fitting Schoolyards to Kids' Needs

In Harlem, elementary pupils participate in designing a community-planned playground

IT feels like Christmastime at Public Schools 185 and 208, which occupy adjacent buildings in Harlem.

In a conference room overlooking a barren, concrete schoolyard, half a dozen elementary-schoolers clamor around a bulletin board. "Hey, the little kids got a tricycle track!" exclaims a fifth-grader.

These students are getting their first look at plans for transforming their bleak, graffiti-covered schoolyards into inviting, state-of-the-art playgrounds.

But much of what the students see in the drawings isn't a surprise to them. They have been part of a three-year planning process that also includes the schools' principals, teachers, custodian, parents, and community members.

As a member of the playground committee, fifth-grader Shanequa Joyner has attended planning meetings for several years. Every time there's an after-school meeting, Shanequa goes uptown to pick up her three-year-old sister and then keeps her occupied with crayons and books during the two-hour sessions.

Since Shanequa and the other students know every inch of both the upper and lower schoolyards, their input is valuable. They know the most strategic locations for trash cans and are aware of the need for coat hooks and benches.

Student representatives are careful to represent the interests of everyone who will use the yards. "What about some open spots?" asked fifth-grader Jesus Gonzalez at one meeting. "I know the girls like to play double Dutch [a jump-rope game] every day."

The schoolyards now offer little more than blighted open space. That's the norm for schoolyards in urban America, says Roger Hart, director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the City University of New York Graduate Center, which is sponsoring the project.

Schoolyards generally contain no niches of any kind, Dr. Hart says. On top of bare pavement, schools usually put what Hart describes as "chimpanzee equipment." Such outdoor jungle gyms provide only a small portion of children's play needs, he says.

The two schoolyards in Harlem don't even have such primitive equipment. Graffiti-covered concrete structures adorn the lower yard. The upper yard has five basketball backboards. But only two have nets. One doesn't even have a rim. The yards are pocked with holes that become permanent puddles. Trash floats in the stagnant water.

"I really like what's going to be done with the schoolyard," Shanequa says. "Right now there are huge potholes like on the street. You can trip, slip, and bust your lip. It's happened to me before."

At night, drug dealing sometimes takes place in the dark corners of the yards. "You find little crack vials on the ground," Shanequa says. "That's not safe."

The new yards will offer a range of play opportunities, says Cindi Katz, co-director of the schoolyard project with Hart. "There are going to be quiet spaces for stories, work tables, a theater area where there can be performances, a garden."

"More learning happens in the play yard than in the school. Yet no one has recognized the need to structure that environment so that it supports that learning," says Mark Francis, a University of California, Davis, professor of landscape architecture and one of the designers.

THIS concept of schoolyards as extensions of the school building appeals to the teachers in Harlem. "I see so many areas in which children and teachers can gather for classes," said one enthusiastic teacher at the unveiling of the architect's drawings.

By involving the community in the redesign process, the designers hope to foster a new respect for these community spaces. "One of the values of participation is that through the process people gain a sense of ownership over the space," Mr. Francis says. "A schoolyard is a classic example of a space that belongs to no one. If you talk to the teachers and principals, it's always somebody else's space. It's controlled by the maintenance people or the school board or whatever."

If we just came in, tore up the old yards, and put in a bunch of new equipment, "it would get trashed," Francis says.

Along with helping the community reclaim and beautify their playgrounds, this project aims to provide a national model for contemporary schoolyards.

"The goal of this isn't just to make one good schoolyard; it's to make it so good that we embarrass education authorities nationally," Hart says.

"Schoolyards have always been dealt with as an afterthought," he says. The Harlem project involves completely rethinking the role of schoolyards. "This is really asking the question again: What is it for?" Hart says.

Children in this tough neighborhood have nowhere to play outdoors in safety. "Their parents pick them up at 3, and they don't let them out again," says Corine Pettey, principal of P.S. 208. "Children need a sanctuary."

"Most of the children in the neighborhood are allowed to play outside only when they can be supervised," says Dr. Katz, who conducted extensive research in the neighborhood.

To help provide a safe environment, the design team is advocating that the playgrounds be staffed after school and into the evenings by parent and community volunteers, Katz says.

"The schoolyard lies strategically between the school and the community and has a valuable role to play as a catalyst for building school-community relations," Hart says.

The idea for this playground-revitalization project sprang from a 1988 task force on early childhood playgrounds formed by District 3, which includes Public Schools 185 and 208.

When Hart attended one of the task-force meetings, the idea of a demonstration project using participatory design began to take shape.

The New York Board of Education had allocated $850,000 for resurfacing and fencing the two Harlem schoolyards.

"We asked that that money be held in abeyance since we were about to embark on a grander project," says James Mazza, who is the deputy superintendent of District 3.

Now that the design process is complete, Mr. Mazza will take the plans before the central district and request release of the $850,000. That money will be applied to the overall cost of redesigning the two schoolyards, which could be as much as $1.7 million, Francis says.

Construction isn't expected to begin until next year at the earliest. "I won't fool you," Mazza says. "I'm working with the New York City school system. Things don't happen overnight."

In the meantime, Hart is launching a fund-raising effort for the remaining construction costs. He's targeting foundations and private donors. "It's going to be a hard sell," acknowledges Hart. But he is confident that the money can be raised.

The designers are allowing for a process of phased construction. "It's not an all-or-nothing type of design," Katz says. "Parts of it can be done and other parts left until a later year."

In a final planning meeting, the group came to a consensus on what elements should be given priority. Once the resurfacing and fencing is complete, the play structures, gardens, and landscaping will follow.

Although Shanequa is graduating from elementary school this month, her enthusiasm for the project hasn't waned. "I'll be coming back to visit," she says.

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