Debbie School Students Design Their Dream Playground with KaBOOM!

Ask Sarah Scarr what she’d like at her school playground and the 5-year-old is very specific. “I want monkey bars, swings, a silly slide and a fossil in the dirt – you know, a dinosaur fossil.’’

That’s not some far-fetched childhood fantasy. Imbedded in faux sand, a replica of a fossil dinosaur was a top vote-getter among the many objects Sarah and her classmates at the Department of Pediatric’s Debbie School, at the Mailman Center for Child Development, could choose from in designing their dream playground last week.

Sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in partnership with KaBOOM!, a national non-profit organization born from tragedy and dedicated to bringing play back in the lives of children, the playground is no dream, either. The modern 2,500-square-foot park is slated to replace the Debbie School’s aging playground in a single day – July 10 – with the help of school personnel, parents, and other adults in the neighborhood who have volunteered to turn the students’ crayoned blueprints into reality.

“The kids are very excited about it,’’ said teacher Patricia Donovan. “We all are because we really need a new playground. I first started at the Debbie School in 1986 and when I came back last March the same playground was here. It’s very outdated.’’

Indeed, 5-year-old Shane Chin-a-Young will tell you the creaky walking bridge is “boring” and should be replaced with a “super-duper slide.” And Natalie Zapata, also 5, says she doesn’t like to crawl in the old metal tunnel because it’s so dirty inside.

Exactly what will replace the old equipment remains to be seen, but the collaborative design process KaBOOM! has used to plan and erect more than 1,750 new playgrounds across the United States, Canada and Mexico already has proven to be a great learning experience for the 145 students at the Debbie School. Primarily a center for young children with special needs, the school also serves typically developing youngsters, all of whom attend classes together.

As Donovan noted, the kids are using math skills to count down the days until Build Day; they expanded their vocabulary as they perused tunnels, Jungle Gyms, fossils and other equipment in a playground catalogue; and they’ve learned about choices and decision-making as they voted on their favorites.

Which proves KaBOOM!’s belief that the collaborative process of organizing a play space is as important as the space itself. Established in 1996, KaBOOM! was founded after CEO Darell Hammond read a news story about two Washington, D.C., children who suffocated while playing in an abandoned car because they had no place to play. Determined to make sure every child in America would have a playground within walking distance, he developed KaBOOM!’s “community-build” playground model to mobilize disparate neighborhoods to come together and act on behalf of its youngest residents.

The program came to the Debbie School’s attention two years ago when Juan Carlos del Valle, UM’s director of government affairs, toured the school and, noticing the rundown equipment under a stand of oaks and along a bicycle path, suggested the faculty apply to KaBOOM! for a grant to fund a playground. KaBOOM! then partnered with the Knight Foundation for project funding.

Two years later, Kathy Vergara, the school’s associate director, couldn’t be more pleased.

“We’re thrilled the Knight Foundation and KaBOOM! are partnering to build our playground,’’ she said. “It’s brought everybody in the school family together. It’s empowering for the parents, the staff and, of course, the kids. It will have a lasting impact.’’

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