Denise Veronick’s class at Mt. Airy’s Emlen Elementary School was buzzing on Thursday afternoon. Twenty-eight fourth graders were hard at work designing their dream playground.
The playground at Emlen today has two basketball hoops. There’s no playground equipment and no greenspace. The only shade offered comes from one tree and the shadow of the building.
That won’t be the case for long. The Mt. Airy Schools Coalition is hoping to redevelop the play space here along with those at the five other schools in the neighborhood.
There was no shortage of creative ideas for a new playground from the kids in Veronick’s art literacy class. Ideas included encasing the playground in a bubble so the students could always play outside, an aquarium with otters, a nail salon, a boxing ring and a zoo.
Other, perhaps more feasible ideas, included wooden benches to read on, water fountains, a garden to plant vegetables in, swings and a rock climbing wall.
“I just want a place to have a lot of fun,” said Khole Jones, a student in Veronick’s class. “Where we can do more than play tag.”
Veronick said the only improvement on the playground she’s seen in her 26 years at Emlen has been the addition of a second basketball hoop.
“The kids just need an outlet. A place to play that nice and safe,” said Veronick. “They can’t always find that in their neighborhoods.”
The coalition, made up of community development corporation Mt. Airy USA and neighborhood groups West Mt. Airy Neighbors and East Mt. Airy Neighbors, said the need for improved playgrounds emerged as a top priority for neighbors in a community survey last year.
“Inviting schoolyard spaces offer kids the space to have fun,” said Abby Thaker, managing director of Mt. Airy USA. “It makes the schools more attractive to the community and helps the community recognize the schools as an asset.”
Student design workshops like the one at Emlen will be taking place at each of the neighborhood schools — A.B. Day, Lingelbach, C.W. Henry, Houston and Jenks. Parents and community members also have the chance to weigh during in-person meetings with the design team and through online surveys.
The workshops are being led by students from Iowa University’s landscape architecture program. The students, in their final year of the program, will take back the ideas presented to them and spend the remainder of the semester drawing up plans for each of the schools.
Using a combination of students and professionals will help “keep things economical,” said Thaker.
The priorities will vary from school to school depending on what is already available and the school’s curriculum goals. At Jenks, for example, which has an existing robust outdoor space, the focus will be on using the outdoor space to enhance the school’s focus on science, technology, engineering and math education.
Mt. Airy Schools Coalition is waiting to hear back from the Philadelphia Water Department on a grant to assist with the costs. The coalition will spend the rest of the school year raising money through grants and private funders with the goal of beginning work on the playgrounds in the summer.