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New Playground Fuses Fun, Instruction

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07-Sept-14 (RRES) – In early September, students at Rocky Ridge Elementary School learned geography, science, math, engineering, physical fitness and much more. This wasn’t all that unusual for a school, until you consider the one spot on this campus where this took place: the school’s new playground.

Rocky Ridge Elementary School Principal Dr. Dil Uswatte says students and classes continue to converge on the new playground to study the origins of its parts (geography); conduct “geometry shape hunts” (math); observe the effects of gravity and velocity via playground devices (science and engineering); and so forth. It’s a new learning spot that in big ways - has helped further energize this school.

“This playground incorporates so many facets of learning,” Dr. Uswatte said. “It’s going to be enjoyed by not only the students, but the parents and teachers as well.”

The new playground opened to much fanfare on August 8, when the school held the playground’s official ribbon-cutting ceremony. The school’s Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) joined school leaders in opening the new playground, a project months in the making. Along the way, the PTO met with school leaders, maintenance/operations workers, parents, teachers and outside agencies to determine the best concepts for the new playground’s design.

“The reason this is all such a great success is the incredible amount of planning, preparation and follow-up by our PTO and the various support people who helped to make this playground happen,” Dr. Uswatte said.

Dr. Uswatte’s predecessor, longtime RRES Principal Dr. Sonia Carrington, helped to start the playground process years ago, along with the PTO, during her tenure as head administrator. She says the previous playground was always well-maintained, but she and others knew it was time for an update.

“Focusing on the playground needs over the past two years gained the PTO a positive reputation and characteristics of a unified group that included being child-centered, persistent, involved and one that had vision and a systemic process to reach goals. Fundraising events were planned and implemented, playground cost projections made and information distributed to faculty and parents. I, as Principal at the time, was always included in PTO board meetings and all playground committee discussion meetings. Shelley Shaw, PTO president 2013-14, spearheaded the committee; among the committee members were Cleo Clency, Maxine Retzer, Cindy Morris, Nancy Halsell, Liz Carey, Dil Uswatte and me.”

“Look at children’s faces after ‘playground’ is mentioned. Their eyes light up and smiles spread from ear to ear – pure joy!” Dr. Carrington said. “On Friday, August 8, I was proud to sit among faculty and staff, students, parents, Central Office personnel, a state representative and other members of the PTO playground committee as the Rocky Ridge Principal, Dr. Dil Uswatte, led in the playground ribbon cutting. Joy – pure joy – was evident on each child’s face!”

Shelley Shaw was elated to help usher in the new playground – and see the culmination of years’ of effort.

“We had a labor of love with this playground. A lot of families contributed through various fundraising efforts,” Shaw said. “The PTO sat down and looked at catalogs and catalogs and catalogs to determine what makes a good playground, what makes a great playground.”

Part of what makes this playground so great is its inclusiveness; from the width of its ramps to swings designed to accommodate wheelchair-bound kids, this playground welcomes students of all abilities. Multi-handicapped [MH] teacher Mrs. Ellen Anson could not be more excited.

“We [MH teachers] were very often on the outside looking in, thinking, ‘..wow, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could get our kids all the way up to the top of the ramp?,’” Anson told the crowd at the ribbon-cutting.

Anson joins the RRES administration in lauding the efforts of the PTO to gather input from so many stakeholders. She says early on, she had begun a MH-wishlist for the new playground in hopes of delivering it to the PTO.

“Let me tell you, [the PTO members] were in my room before I even had a chance to [contact them],” Anson said.

A large swath of expertise and planning came from Mr. Cleo Clency, a Rocky Ridge parent who also works in Parks and Recreation for the City of Birmingham. His knowledge of playground development, safety and componentry proved invaluable through this process, according to school leaders. According to him, he’s most proud of the fact that this playground accommodates all students so well – and in a fun fashion.

“It is a state-of-the-art playground that is geared toward the imagination of the child – their physical and emotional development, as well as their socialization skills,” Clency said. “My spirit gets joy from watching these kids play and have fun. That’s why I’ve been in this business for so long.”

From its Maypole (that accommodates up to 68 riders) to its ADA-compliant (American Disabilities Act) Team Swing to its German-made Cosmos™ (one of only two in Alabama, the other resides at the nationally-recognized Railroad Park) – this new playground truly makes its mark.

“This is living proof that when people work together the right way, you can build dreams – and we did it, we built a dream,” Dr. Uswatte said. “You can see it, feel it, love it for many years to come.”

-Jason Gaston/HCS

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