A Town's Old-Fashioned Monkey-Bar Raising
Kids swing into action on a new playground built with four years of sweat equity
The need for a playground at the James Russell Lowell Elementary School was fairly obvious: There wasn't one.Skip to next paragraph
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Children had to cross the road off school grounds to play on an outdated, rudimentary setup.
Crossing the street meant an extra teacher had to be on hand to escort a child back across the road, say, to go to the restroom. An extra teacher meant an extra class, and that meant 40 to 50 kids playing on one so-so playground at once.
A group of parents decided the school could do better. They formed a committee, and after meeting with playground representatives and getting some fundraising ideas rolling, they proposed a modest playground on school grounds. It would be safe and useful to all children, including those in wheelchairs. It would also help accommodate the influx of baby-boomer babies.
Four years and a whole lot of deals later, the Lowell School is getting its playground - despite competing projects, naysayers, and funding challenges.
Community-funded playgrounds are becoming more common as school and town funds dry up and parents demand high-quality play equipment.
"There's been a big surge in awareness in playground safety and a lot of attention is being paid to communities ripping out the old ones," says Kim Zipse, marketing project manager for Landscape Structures Inc., a park and playground equipment company based in Minneapolis that sold the equipment to the Lowell School playground committee.
"It is amazing what communities can do when they band together," she notes. "People in small communities sometimes have no money, no means, and sometimes they'll put forth the effort and put up the best playground."
One small community outside the Twin Cities, for example, has involved nearly everyone in town. They've written a playground theme song and even persuaded one car dealer to donate a minivan to raffle off to raise money.
The same type of gusto can be found in Watertown. Moms and dads helped raise money, worked with town and school officials, and got their hands dirty on site. Businesses, volunteers, teachers, and the school principal also rose to the occasion.
"The amazing thing was how willing people are to donate and to help," says Kathy Schickel, a member of the playground committee and a mother of four, three of whom attend Lowell.
Several Saturdays ago, Nynex, the local phone company, dug the holes, and the initial structures were put up. It was like an old-fashioned barn-raising in this working-class community where "homes are filling up with families," according to Stephan Messina, a school-committee member.
"I can't believe this is happening," said Shirley Gibson, the school's longtime secretary, as she surveyed the scene. "This is the bow tie, the ribbon on the box," she says referring to the school's expansion.
Local vendors - including 5 pizza parlors - donated food. Teachers pitched in for a deli platter. The girls' varsity field hockey team came over to help.
"I thought this would be a good team-building type of challenge," says coach Eileen Donahue. "The kids are all excited. And more than half of them are former Lowell students."
As harmonious as the groundbreaking was this particular Saturday, the four-year process provided plenty of lessons in "getting along."
"You know it's to benefit the kids, and you don't let the politics get to you, although sometimes they do," says Maggie Thomas, mother of three, who ushered the playground project from start to finish. "Ironically, we wanted children to cooperate, but we had to learn how to cooperate in order to make it happen."
In the first years, the committee changed members because several people moved. The original plan to "build it ourselves" crumbled when they learned that the liability was prohibitive.