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Community comes together to build playground for Gatewood Elmentary

By Tim Farley

Gatewood Elementary students in Oklahoma City will be the first group to enjoy a fully equipped playground since the school was built 87 years ago.

“To my knowledge, there’s never been a real playground. We’ve an open field out there and a basketball court, but nothing like what is planned,” said Principal Leah Anderson. “The kids are so excited. It seems almost unbelievable. They just squeal when we talk about it.”

The school was built in 1927, school district records show.

The 2,500 square-foot playground is scheduled for a quick, six-hour build on May 3 thanks to a partnership between Foresters, an international financial services company, Gatewood’s community advisory board and KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving and saving play for America’s children. Foresters is the primary funding partner for the project.

An estimated 200 volunteers will participate in the playground construction, Mary Kay Audd, Foresters’ member coordinator, said. About 50 of the volunteers will be Foresters policyholders.

Gatewood’s project marks the first time KaBOOM! and Foresters have partnered in Oklahoma.

KaBOOM! project manager Courtney Sawyer met with students and parents in early March to collect ideas for the playground. By far, the most popular items were slides, monkey bars, low-hanging zip lines and rock walls, she said.

Additional amenities, such as landscaping and seating, may be added outside the immediate playground area. Parents also expressed an interest in an outdoor learning center.

“Based on the requests I got, our designers will come up with three plans and then the kids will get to vote on which one they want,” Sawyer said. “Right now, there’s little for them to do out there. They’re not getting that challenging play time you can get with playground equipment.”

Teachers and parents appeared just as enthused about the upcoming playground build as the students.

“It’s one of those playgrounds where you’re going from nothing to something incredible,” Anderson said. “This will be great for the kids and the whole community.”

Neighbors will have access to the playground when school is not in session, the principal said.
As part of their commitment to the plan, school officials agreed to raise $8,500 to help pay for the equipment.

Kristen Vails, executive director of the 16th Street Plaza District and a member of the school’s advisory board, said no playgrounds exist within one square mile of the school.

“It’s important for the community because it will be a central place to exercise and meet each other,” she said.

Initial inquiries about new playground equipment began about a year ago when the community advisory board reached out to KaBOOM!

“We made a request but nothing really happened, but at the end of January or early February KaBOOM! called and said there was a possibility of doing a project in Oklahoma City,” Vails recalled. “Ever since we’ve been hurrying around trying to get everyone on the same page.”

Playing around

KaBOOM! cites a problem known as the “play deficit,” which hits home with Gatewood Elementary.

According to the nonprofit’s Web site, American children are playing less than any previous generation, causing physical, intellectual, social and emotional harm.

KaBOOM! contends there aren’t enough outside play spaces being built and those that do exist often are in disrepair. The nonprofit also claims fears surrounding lawsuits and safety receive more attention than common sense, often resulting in “uninspired play environments.”

“Kids are overscheduled, and in their free time, many choose to stay indoors, lulled by television, computers and video games,” the KaBOOM! Web site states.

Playground equipment provides opportunities to see children imitating, taking turns, engaging in fantasy play and cooperating with friends, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
CDC experts believe playground equipment allows children to use their imagination. For example, kids on swings can fly to the moon while children on slides can sled down a hill. CDC officials also contend children should have at least one hour a day of physical exercise to avoid obesity, attention deficit disorder, depression and other behavioral problems.

Meanwhile, KaBOOM! officials believe the decline of outside play also is linked to lack of green spaces in cities and suburbs, fragmented communities and failing schools. In the latest round of state school grades, Oklahoma City’s public schools received an “F.”

As a result, KaBOOM! has vowed to fight the “play deficit” issue by building innovative, kid-inspired play spaces.

“In saving play, we are creating healthier, happier and smarter children, greener cities, better schools and stronger neighborhoods,” the nonprofit’s Web site states.

Since its inception in 1996, KaBOOM! has built more than 2,400 playgrounds for more than 5.5 million children. Typically, KaBOOM! builds about 180 to 200 play areas each year, Sawyer said.

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