WATERTOWN — With outdoor play being an important developmental component for children, playgrounds are a hub for recreation both during school hours and after. Equally important, if not more so, are playground maintenance and upkeep to ensure structures are safe for children to play on.
Before any major injuries occur due to playground equipment, the Watertown City School District is taking steps to make necessary updates to three out of five elementary school playgrounds in the district: Ohio, Starbuck, and Knickerbocker elementary schools.
“They’ve been used, but also neglected quite a bit in terms of upkeep,” Watertown City School District Superintendent Patricia LaBarr said. “At the end of the day, if a playground was built in the 1990s, it’s going to need updating.”
To this end, $200,000 has been put aside for for the 2019-20 school year for the playgrounds — the first time money has been allocated in the budget specifically for playgrounds, she said.
According to the Times archives, Starbuck Elementary School’s playground was built by parent volunteers in September of 1992. With a large portion of the playground being made of outdated wooden structures, most of the playground will need to be removed soon, according to Jason Compo, the WCSD’s supervisor of maintenance for the Buildings and Grounds Office. He said that for what it is, it’s in good shape and not really rotted out, but a lot of requirements have changed since that style of playground went in and it needs to be replaced and made more accessible.
Installed in 1993 by Pettinelli & Associates of Burlington, Vt., with equipment from Miracle Recreation, Ohio and Knickerbocker are also outdated. According to Mr. Compo, a large swing capable of holding six people was removed from the Ohio playground due to it being beyond repair. He said the welds were starting to break, with daylight becoming visible through them, so he deemed the structure unsafe.
Typically, a standard playground area should see a new installation or update within eight to 10 years after its original installation date, according to Superior Recreational Products.
Mrs. LaBarr said the district contacted Parkitects, the same company that installed the big playground at Thompson Park, to come and look at some of WCSD’s sites.
A consultant, Karen O’Connor of the Parkitects Central New York Office, visited each of the three sites this week to assess damages and come up with a plan for what would need to be done to repair the playgrounds, as well as update them.
“This being my third year, it’s always been a priority to put kids first,” Mrs. LaBarr said. “We often ask students what they want to see done to the schools, and quite often they mention things related to the playgrounds, they’re always asking for something more for the playgrounds or adding to existing playgrounds.”
According to Mrs. LaBarr, drainage was a problem at both Knickerbocker and Ohio, and because school districts don’t always have the equipment needed for something like this, the district is looking for local businesses to help with the drainage.
“We need to take care of that first and find a place for the water to go because we need a good foundation to build on,” Mr. Compo said.
He said rains would sort of fill the playgrounds and the water had nowhere to go, so there would be standing water around lots of toys in the playgrounds.
Because the district wishes to become ADA compliant with its playgrounds, one of Ms. O’Connor’s ideas was to meet with the physical therapist and others that work with the physically and sensory challenged children to see what they can do to meet their needs, tailoring to the needs of all students in the district.
“We discussed the different needs of students and ADA accessibility to make sure it’s fair and there is something for every child that wants to use it,” Mr. Compo said. The Department of Justice’s Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, ensuring equal access and benefit to all people. Stemming from the ADA, the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design created accessibility standards for public facilities that can be enforced under a federal court of law.
According to the ADA, an accessible playground is one that offers a range of play experiences to children of varying abilities.
Ms. O’Connor thinks some equipment can be refurbished, so she is going to come up with a rendering plan and will lay everything out during her next visit, which is yet to be scheduled, according to Mrs. LaBarr.
Ms. O’Connor could not be reached for comment.
“We try to keep up on them and inspect them, but we’re working with some old equipment and it’s just time for a change,” Mr. Compo said.
In terms of a plan to update and maintain the playgrounds over a long period of time, Mrs. LaBarr said the district is waiting to see what Ms. O’Connor comes back with and then have her look at the other playgrounds. She added that she loves the idea of getting a committee together and going back and revisiting these things, noting that the playgrounds are important to the district.
“This is ongoing, not just a one and done, so we need to make sure to have the committee updated on an annual basis with those who are passionate about these playgrounds,” she said. “You need to keep that passion growing, keep that fire going.”