When it came time to design a new play area for Bernard Terrace Elementary School, the planners looked to the authorities — the students.
And the youngsters wanted to be able to compete against each other on the brightly colored slide, climbing bars and stairs.
“It’s great for the kids,” said Marybeth Lima, 49, the director of the LSU Community Playground Project that built the play space. “They are taking control of their own space. These are their ideas. Those kids are really the true experts at play.”
Bernard Terrace’s new playground was the 30th built in East Baton Rouge Parish since 1998 as part of Lima’s LSU Community Playground Project.
An annual assignment from Lima’s freshman biological engineering class, the students must create a blueprint for a local school, taking direction from the children, their parents and the teachers. A few students from each class stick around to head the project, then volunteers build the playground when funding is found.
The Bernard Terrace play space, finished two weekends ago, was the culmination of a three-year project, said project leader Kristen Galloway, 21, a senior biological engineering major. The students’ competitiveness was part of the “soul of the community,” what Lima directs her students to find when they start a playground project.
“For me, I saw that it was friendly competition and family support throughout,” Galloway said.
Designing playgrounds is a good introduction to the broad field of biological engineering, said Lima. While many students in the program become doctors, others will design pharmaceuticals or water treatment systems.
Lima’s freshman-level class started its first playground at Beechwood Elementary in north Baton Rouge in 1998. They finished two years later, with most of their time spent finding money to construct the jungle gym. Designing went quickly. Getting funding was slower.
“It’s one of those things I didn’t realize when I started building,” Lima said.
Once they completed the Beechwood playground, another local principal read about the project in The Advocate and requested Lima’s students design a play space for his students. Seventeen years later, Lima has learned her way around the government funding and grant-writing world, but it’s still difficult. Most playground projects have needed two to five years to find a money source.
“Sometimes it will go really quickly,” Lima said. “Sometimes you might write one proposal and it gets funded on the first try, and there are other schools, like Howell Park (Elementary) where I didn’t get funded until my 10th try.”
In most instances, both money and work come from a variety of sources, what Lima calls “a case of stone soup,” alluding to the children’s story of strangers contributing random ingredients to make supper.
For each project, Lima finds the funding so her students can focus on knowing the school and the students. In meetings with students and faculty the freshmen learn about the school’s play needs, and, as a requirement for the class, the college students join the Volunteers in Public School program to become reading buddies with the youngsters.
“For my students to really develop an appreciation for the soul of the community, they’re going to have to spend some time engaged in the school community,” Lima said. “If they work with the child one-on-one, it will certainly help that child improve their reading and math. That child is also teaching my student about the roles they play and also the school and what makes it a special place.”
While it seems like a lot of extra work for one first-year class, Galloway said the hours she spent with her reading buddy at Bernard Terrace were crucial to creating the right design, but it also taught her valuable lessons she intends to use in her career as a pediatrician.
“Patience, not only with the kids but with the process and trying to figure out something,” she said. “If I’m looking at it with a doctor’s eyes, I see something, I need to diagnosis it. Here, I’m figuring out what I need to do to get it where it needs to be.”
More than 120 volunteers came over the weekend to build, including certified playground equipment installers. Lima’s passion for the project attracts lots of help.
“She makes you feel very appreciated,” said Gannon Brandt, a 26-year-old Our Lady of the Lake nursing student who has assisted four playground builds. “You leave feeling like you did a good job.”
With 30 playgrounds completed, Lima doesn’t see her project running out of schools that need help.
“This is something that East Baton Rouge needs,” Lima said. “It’s actually not just an East Baton Rouge need or a Louisiana need. It’s a national need.”