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Giving Play a Chance


For years, teachers and faculty at Monument Elementary School in Trenton, N.J., feared recess.

The playground at Monument was nothing more than an empty, broken blacktop, one which the school’s principal described as a “desolate desert.” When the students came back to class they were often bloody and bruised, because their run-down playground simply wasn’t suited for play.

All that changed earlier this month, when more than 400 volunteers came together at Monument Elementary School to build a brand-new playground. The build was a culmination of more than a year of fundraising and planning led by a coalition of partners that included the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids (NJPHK) and the YMCA of Trenton.

“This was a true community event, which is what you want,” says Samuel Frisby, CEO of the YMCA. “You really want the community to come together in such a way that they take ownership, so they keep it.”

Nearly one in two children in Trenton are now classified as overweight and obese. They also often lack access to healthy food and safe places to play, which contributes to the obesity epidemic.

Monument’s principal had dreamt for six years of a new playground, Frisby says, as a way to encourage physical activity among students (and hopefully lead to fewer cuts and bruises). But the school lacked the funding to build it, especially in tough fiscal times when school resources are dedicated to priorities such as improving test scores.

“Playgrounds are expensive to build; this particular city is one of the poorest cities in the country,” Frisby says. “Recreation and recess is not a priority of a district that has been failing for 15, 20 years.”

That’s where NJPHK and the YMCA were able to help. The nonprofit group Kaboom gave a $20,000 grant to the school to kick start the project. Frisby and his team managed to raise about $60,000 more from donors and other grants.

And while the grown-ups raised the money, the kids dreamed up the playground, Frisby says.

“Instead of us just choosing a type of apparatus that would go into the playground, what we did was held a contest at the school,” he recalls. “What we said was, ‘Build your dream playground.’”

Roughly 20 classrooms worked on playground designs, picking and choosing which types of equipment they’d like to include. The designs were then narrowed down, and students and parents then weighed in on the winner.

That kind of input is important. Frisby spent several years heading Trenton’s recreation department, often working on installing or repairing facilities. Those that remain in good condition are the ones the community worked together to create, rather than those the city installed on its own, he says.

And Frisby is confident that the new playground at Monument will be well taken care of, considering the entire community worked together to build it.

More than 400 people showed up on Aug. 11 to build the playground, from parents and students to teachers and city officials to community and youth groups. Representatives from four different community construction companies took part, helping to oversee things such as mixing cement, while members of the local fire department did so much work that Frisby dubbed them the “MVVs” for “most valuable volunteers.”

“They did the real grunt work, making sure a lot of the heavy lifting was done well,” Frisby says.

Monument’s new playground will officially open the first week of September. Frisby and his colleagues also are working to set up an agreement between the school and the city that will allow the new facility to be made available after-school hours, so young people and their families will always have a safe place to play.

Editor’s note: New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids is a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). is a RWJF project.