Let the kids play

Melissa Lennon might have felt like she was experiencing déjà vu last fall when Preston school officials decided to tear down the decaying wooden playground at the Preston Veterans' Memorial School.

The wooden structure had rotted, was a haven for insects and students continually got slivers.

Lennon had been a teacher at Plainfield Catholic School when the school's insurance company demanded that a similar decaying wooden playground be torn down. She volunteered for the playground replacement committee, researched new equipment, contacted vendors and helped select the replacement equipment. Unfortunately, Plainfield Catholic was one of the schools closed by the Diocese of Norwich in cost-cutting moves.

So when PVMS was placed in a similar situation, Lennon, a PTO member, drew on her past experience, pulled out old notes and contacts to start the process all over again.

"A lot of people were upset when the old playground was torn down," she said of the Preston playground. "I agreed with them, but when it was taken down, the rot was the same as what I saw at my old school."

Lennon doesn't want to dwell on those past controversies. She wants voters to consider what the students need for recess and after-school play, exercise and friendship building.

Lennon took the matter to the PTO and Board of Education and most importantly, to the students. Last fall, she and school board Chairwoman Jan Clancy surveyed students in grades 2 through 5, for whom a new playground will be designed, asking them to rank proposed equipment features in a range from "totally awesome" to "boring."

Lennon became such a frequent visitor to the school that students started calling her "the playground lady."

The result after six design revisions to cut costs to satisfy the town Board of Finance, the final design, costing $126,861, will be presented to voters at a town meeting Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at PVMS and at a referendum Sept. 23.

The school two years ago installed a new playground for students from preschool age to second grade, so the new facility would be geared toward the older students at the school, with several "reach" elements designed for students with disabilities. To the side would be two picnic tables with umbrellas for relaxing and for parents to supervise their children, because the entire playground would be open to the public during off-school hours.

The design was approved by the Board of Education on April 7, and the board voted in June to turn back $28,000 from its 2013-14 budget to the town with a request to the Board of Finance that the money be deemed the board's contribution to the project. If approved, the project would be funded through the town's general fund, with volunteers and local businesses providing another $23,100 in time and services - including excavator equipment - to the project to cut costs.

The playground would have 24 different "play elements," including one S-shaped bridge connecting features, two slides, seven climbers and eight so-called specialty items, including a "Triple Ring Fling" with giant overhead wheels older stronger students can spin as they pull on them.

"That was a unanimous vote by the kids," Lennon said of the ring fling.

One of the slides would have a bed of rollers - like a package conveyor belt - and would be wide enough for two students to go down together.

A climbing wall would have solid brightly colored blue and red panels with oval-shaped holes for hands and feet. And students insisted on a fire pole, which would have a 72-inch high platform deck.

For handicapped students, the playground would have a vertical maze panel with a knob children can pull along to navigate the maze, a stationary pole with hand-operated spin pedals and a steering wheel.

To encourage teamwork, standup spinners feature solid disks for up to three students to stand on, their hands holding a vertical pole. They would use their bodies to start and stop the spinning action.

If the project is approved at the Sept. 23 referendum, the playground would probably have to be installed in the spring. Companies that install the poured rubber foundation - chosen over woodchips for its lower maintenance and longevity - stop work in mid-to-late October as cold weather sets in.

But come Sept. 24, "the playground lady" hopes to bring good news and a more exact schedule to students at PVMS.



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