Building Playgrounds, Engaging Communities

The benefits of play for young children are undeniable. Not only does it improve their physical wellbeing, it also enhances learning and curbs poor behavior. Yet recess has given way to academics as school administrators work to implement standardized testing and core academic requirements. The number of school districts that mandate recess is on the decline, and nearly 40% of U.S. schools have reduced or eliminated recess altogether.

These alarming figures drove Dr. Marybeth Lima, Cliff & Nancy Spanier Alumni Professor at Louisiana State University’s College of Engineering, to co-found LSU Community Playground Project, an organization that builds playgrounds throughout the greater Baton Rouge area. Dr. Lima, a certified playground safety inspector, and her LSU biological engineering students have partnered with community schools to build safe, fun, accessible, child-designed playgrounds in 29 locations, enabling more than 10,000 schoolchildren to play and learn every day.

“I’ve been doing this for 16 years and the same problem exists of kids not having access to a great play space,” explained Lima. “My dream is for every kid to be able to step outside at recess and swing, climb and slide.”

Lima and her class meet with the students and talk to them about their ideal play spaces. They then conceptualize several playgrounds based on the children’s suggestions, which Lima and her students present to the youths.

“The kids are unfiltered, so my students might get a standing ovation or they might get booed,” Lima laughed. “That’s why the students work so hard. The kids are tough, but they’re fair.”

Children who have minimal access to recess are more likely to be minority and low-income students, and Lima’s class includes a service-learning component that reinforces the reciprocal partnership between the college and elementary school students. While her engineering students learn about playground design, the children learn about engineering and college life from her students. Additionally, Lima requires her students to meet with the children at least eight times throughout the semester to share the joy of reading or math and to improve academic skills in these areas.

The final design incorporates the children’s favorite elements from each draft.

“Kids are the true experts of play and better designers of creative space,” said Lima. “No playground is the same. As engineers, we need to figure out how to translate that magic into elements of safe design.”