Creating an Everyone-Wins Playground Partnership

by Lawrence Raffel, PLA, ASLA

The Mark Twain Elementary School Playground in Wheeling, Illinois / image: Lawrence Raffel

Some say two heads are better than one. The Wheeling Park District discovered this concept applies to public agencies, too.

It makes sense. When agencies establish partnerships, the communities they serve benefit from the collective mission and expertise of each agency. Oftentimes an overarching mission of one agency may support a neglected, yet critical, component of another agency.

Such was the case when the Wheeling Park District partnered with Community Consolidated School District 21 (CCSD21) to design and develop a new playground at Mark Twain Elementary School, and, at the same time, create a neighborhood park within an underserved community. This creative project, a partnership between the Park District and the School District, fosters the goals of both agencies, and, most importantly, the Wheeling community.

In 2010, the Wheeling Park District conducted a Community Attitude and Interest Survey (CAIS) to determine the parks and recreation needs of the Wheeling community. The results of that survey showed an overwhelming need and desire for improved and developed neighborhood parks. In fact, development of neighborhood parks was one of the most selected responses under the category of “Actions Most Willing to Fund with Tax Dollars.” This data has been a driving component of the Wheeling Park District Strategic Plan.

Twain Playground: Before / image: Lawrence Raffel

In addition, both the Park District Comprehensive Plan and Strategic Plan identify the revitalization of neighborhood parks as a major initiative. The adoption of these plans and the need to improve neighborhood parks to reflect the uniqueness of each park is a direct response to the community’s desires. The Wheeling Park District sought to achieve its strategic initiative of providing quality guest services and experiences through the development of the playground and park site at Mark Twain Elementary School.

Similarly, an updated Community Survey conducted in 2015 noted that residents are aware of neighborhood park improvements and are clearly satisfied overall. When survey participants were offered the option to make a recommendation for the Wheeling Park District, nearly 20% suggested more/improved parks and playgrounds.

Twain Playground: After / image: Lawrence Raffel

School Site as Neighborhood Park

Neighborhood parks are a critical component of the Wheeling Park District and, as such, the Park District has a Board-adopted Neighborhood Park Improvement Plan. The neighborhood which would most be served by a proposed partnership between the Wheeling Park District and CCSD21 did not have easy access to a neighborhood park. Although the school site is generally open to the public and, while the Park District does have an agreement for the use of the fields, the existing playground was outdated and sub-standard.

While the school site was clearly an ideal location for a neighborhood park, the existing playground’s lack of inclusiveness, accessibility, and age-appropriate playground equipment did not serve the needs of the school, or the neighborhood. As discussions with school staff progressed, the opportunities to include existing school programs in the design concept became increasingly evident. The development plan prepared by Wheeling Park District staff created a playground that maximized both active and passive recreational components while making a positive contribution to the neighborhood and school.

Site Plan / image: Lawrence Raffel

Early on, this partnership was identified as an excellent candidate for funding through a Healthy Play Action Grant. In preparing the grant application, the following goals were identified:

Community Health
Community health is clearly a priority for the elementary school as well as the Park District. Both agencies realize that healthy lifestyles and physical activity lead to positive results in the classroom. In every community survey, the residents of Wheeling continue to indicate that the most important benefit provided by the Wheeling Park District is the improvement in their physical health and fitness.

Fostering Partnerships
The proposed improvement at the Twain Elementary School site is a genuine partnership between the Wheeling Park District and CCSD21. The two agencies have a long history of fostering partnerships by maintaining open lines of communication and relying on the expertise and skills of the partners.

Currently the Park District maintains and utilizes the open lawn area at Twain Elementary School. Design and construction of a new playground is simply another example of public agencies cooperating for the best interest of the community.

Research-Based Playground Design
A play area that is shared by both a neighborhood community and elementary school, presents a unique opportunity to utilize the principles of inclusive design to measure the results in both the classroom and on the playground.

Community Input & Planned Programming Initiatives
The Wheeling Park District has developed, and continues to utilize, a very public “people-driven design” process to gather input from the community. As such, design concepts, including proposed playground equipment and layout, are presented to the neighborhood for comments in a series of public meetings.

To establish the general program for the playground equipment as well as the planned programming initiative for both the school and the Park District, two Listening Sessions were held in November 2016. In addition, a Design Workshop was conducted with student representatives when school resumed in January 2017.

A general program for the playground equipment and site improvements was based on the comments provided by the teachers and staff at Mark Twain Elementary School as well as comments provided by the neighborhood residents at the respective Listening Sessions. The input recorded at the Design Workshop was also incorporated into the design program.

Subsequently, a portion of the financing for this park project came from a $75,000 matching grant that was awarded by the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association, GameTime, and PlayCore. A provision of the grant was the agreement that the park would serve as a National Demonstration Site in which data will be collected to provide quantifiable evidence on the value of inclusive play.

Twain Playground aerial / image: Lawrence Raffel

The Benefits of Play

While the benefits of play are generally well-known and well-documented, the Wheeling Park District believes that design principles can be utilized to encourage healthy lifestyles, positive social and emotional development, physical activity, and all the components that foster the whole child. Therefore, it is important to be cognizant of these principles when planning, designing, and developing outdoor play spaces. As might be expected in a playground designed by teachers and students, the activities highlight a wide level of skills and abilities. Colors are vibrant reflecting the school colors in both the play equipment and safety surfacing.

Mark Twain Park is special for many reasons. The Park District was able to work in cooperation with Community Consolidated School District 21 and was presented with an excellent opportunity to provide a neighborhood park to an underserved area and upgrade an aging playground. As a result, the park not only enhances the Dunhurst neighborhood but, during school hours, serves as an extension of the learning environment promoting fitness, creative play, and social skills like cooperation and sharing.

In July 2017, the playground was opened and now stands as a symbol for what can be accomplished when governing bodies work together for the betterment of the residents.

So, yes, two heads are better than one and two public agencies cooperating—most definitely a win-win for everyone involved.

Lawrence Raffel, PLA, ASLA, is the Superintendent of Planning at the Wheeling Park District and a registered landscape architect with 30 years of experience in park planning and design.

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