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.

Children had to cross the road off school grounds to play on an outdated, rudimentary setup.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.

To boot, the committee had to do some heavy convincing at a time when other fund-raisers were going on, such as the annual gift-wrap sale to raise money for arts enrichment. Every month, it seemed, parents were being asked to put $5 toward something. "Part of the resistance was that realistically, the parent body really couldn't afford to put in a playground," says Mrs. Thomas. "But every 'no' was answered with another door opening."

Then, there were the children - helping with fundraisers and talking about their new digs. One day, the youngest of Thomas's three sons pointed to a dug-up site and announced "I'm going to kindergarten in that hole!"

There's a real sense of ownership when a community comes together like this, says Tom Sullivan, director of the recreation department for the Town of Watertown. "When the kids and parents are involved, they tend to respect it more because they have a vested interest. They're also apt to take care of something they own rather than something they use only occasionally."

Donna Thompson has seen this time and time again. As director of the National Program for Playground Safety at the University of Iowa at Cedar Falls, she says playground-building can yield many positive results. "Very often there is more good to come out of it than just the playground. It gets people to work together, serve their community, and get outside themselves."

But playgrounds don't come cheaply or easily.

"The need has been there forever," says Emily Shamieh, the school principal. "It took not only these women's vision but tenacity to attend to every detail."

For a Valentine's Day flower sale, they bought 500 bulbs, planted them in pots, and sold them. Letters went out asking for donations. Their "big break" came when Stop & Shop supermarket donated $1,000.

"It really gave us some credibility," says Thomas. Star Market followed with another $1,000 donation.

Local merchants also came through. Russo and Sons, Inc., a green grocer, donated $1,500. The Parent-Teacher Organization donated $1,000, and the town's recreation department donated $3,000 in wood chips.

The Department of Public Works tossed in $3,000 worth of edging ties. Eddie Nilan, owner of Ideal Fence, gave a substantial discount on the playground fence.

The committee also commissioned a plaque to list the benefactors, sponsors, donors, and "friends of the playground," including all the Lowell School teachers. Students raised the $25 in each classroom to get their teacher on the plaque.

All told, they raised $14,000. A playground is a pretty easy sell, Thomas says. "If there's one thing we've learned, it's that people will give for children."

Building a Playground is Not Child's Play

Playgrounds can range from $10,000 to $175,000, says David Loker, a consultant for O'Brien and Sons in Medfield, Mass., who worked on the Lowell School playground.

People considering a playground tend to overlook the nitty-gritty at first. All you need is some equipment and a few trucks, right? Wrong.

In addition to installation, ground cover, site preparation, grading, curbing, and cement, you must consider drainage, parking, accessibility, fencing, signage, and lighting, Mr. Loker says.

Codes, safety issues, and maintenance further the considerations.

Decisions about what equipment to buy are based on finances, community needs, and age-appropriateness. In this case, the committee decided on seven pieces: a swing set, linked low balance beam, a slide, a chinning and turning bar, a drop shot, a bouncer, and a climber. The ground cover is hardwood chips, easy on the falls but hard enough for wheeling around.

Then there are aesthetics. At the Lowell School, landscaping was included in the school's expansion project. Benches were calculated into the expenses for the playground.

At the end of the day, the Watertown residents - like other communities - realize how much a labor of love such a play place is.

For more information, contact:

* The National Program for Playground Safety. 800 554-PLAY (7529)

* Playground manufacturers and consultants offer tips and brochures for people interested in installing playgrounds in their communities.

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