What could the ideal elementary school playground look like?
Thanks to a $25,000 service grant from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Community Design Collaborative (CDC), the Zane North PTA has the opportunity to consider that question.
At a Wednesday afternoon brainstorming meeting with Zane North parents and CDC representatives, the discussions were far-reaching, touching on ways to create a space that could become a neighborhood playground as well as a school-specific area.
Principal Thomas Santo stressed that the process is right now at the “dreaming” stage, but that it is directed collaboratively with input from the administration, schoolchildren, and the parents in the Zane North PTA.
“We work together; we come up with ideas; we move forward to see if they’re realistic, practical,” he said.
A creative outdoor space helps support the “four C’s”— critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration—that Santo described as “21st-century learning skills” for elementary school children.
He said that educators don’t consider the space as a playground expressly intended for recess, but rather as an outdoor learning space that extends the educational experience beyond the classroom.
‘Opening up possibilities for the future’
Zane North parent Geoff DiMasi first presented publically on the idea at the September meeting of the Collingswood Board of Education after the PTA won the grant.
At that time, DiMasi described the process as an effort “to make effective use of potential funds that are already going to be spent” on playground improvements at the school.
CDC assigns professional engineers, cost estimators, landscape architects, to the project as it picks up steam. Professionals will provide drawings, cost estimation, and a timeline for phasing in the improvements over time.
Even if the process never gets off the ground, DiMasi said, the information the district has gleaned is valuable unto itself.
“A structural engineer has already determined that it is possible to do a green roof” at the school, he said.
“At least now it’s known by the head of buildings and grounds that they could if they choose to. They’re going to do soil testing so they’ll have real information about what is the nature of the soil there, how it would help them make decisions about storm water management.
“We want it to be practical,” DiMasi said, but added that “it’s interesting to see how this [project] could open up possibilities for the future.”
From shade to shaping the future
The whole process started with a push to add more shade trees or a permanent shade structure (and in fact, the PTA is working to pursue a grant from the American Academy of Dermatology to pick up part of those costs) to the playground.
The PTA fund-raised a $2,500 contribution to CDC for the support of its organizational overhead; that token amount, DiMasi said, was earmarked as a special project by the PTA and was a necessary component of the project.
CDC representative Jay DeFelice told parents that the group will file “a central plan [and] cost estimations” in January, “enough that as a group of parents you can get started.”
He discussed areas where shade trees and structures could be installed, the use of pervious materials “that kids can still run around on that will still infiltrate the water,” and retaining “a large open space for kids to play kickball.
DeFelice said that in a walkthrough of the current space, “it’s kind of two playgrounds” that is “pretty boxy.”
Parents proposed adding in elements like a green roof, hanging gardens, water-cycle elements, or educational and performing arts structures.
DeFelice also confirmed that the project would create a facility that is “100-percent ADA-accessible” as “a base requirement.”
Parents are invited to provide feedback on the entire first draft of the project at a January meeting with CDC.
CDC, which is composed of design and project management professionals who donate their time to service projects like the Zane North playground, has traditionally worked exclusively in Philadelphia, DiMasi said.
He hopes that bringing them to Collingswood for this project could possibly lead to opportunities to transform other spaces in the borough.
“I’m hoping that this kind of project will provide different examples for things that could happen in the school spaces,” DiMasi said. “I think a lot of us are interested in what it means to extend the classroom into the outdoor space as a way to learn or a place to learn.
“The CDC hasn’t done a lot of work outside of Philadelphia; trying to create a relationship with them, hopefully it could lead to other institutions, other schools, working with them.”
DiMasi said that by involving Collingswood school district grounds and facilities manager Al Hird in the project, the group could create a process that could be replicated to drive improvements at other schools in the borough.
“I think there is a genuine interest, at least in the context of this project, of how we do well in the borough, not just in one school,” he said. “There’s a strong chance that none of my kids will be [at Zane North] when something happens.
“I’m hopeful that this kind of thinking becomes something that we apply to all of our schools and our town and just in general,” DiMasi said.
“As a designer myself, I think it’s great to expose our kids to design, and to show our kids that through design, anything is possible.”