WELLFLEET — The Wellfleet Elementary School (WES) has not had a functioning playground since March 2020, first because the old playground was placed off-limits by Covid-19 precautions, and then, in August 2020, because the aging structure was condemned by the fire dept. and removed after a child was injured while playing on it.
Now, more than a year later, school officials are beginning to look for funding for a new playground, with potential support from the community preservation committee. Construction would begin next summer, at the earliest. And the students have been imagining the playground they would most like to have.
Built more than 30 years ago, the old wooden WES playground suffered wear and tear over the decades. In recent years, playground inspectors flagged needed repairs during annual checks, and WES has been dismantling components one by one.
“Kids were getting splinters all the time,” said Erika Meads, a WES parent and playground committee member. “Everyone knew it needed to be upgraded.”
Playground renovations were penciled into the school’s capital improvement plan for fiscal 2021, but those plans moved to the back burner when the installation of a fire suppression system took priority. The playground renovation was postponed once more after a wall of the school required repairs due to weathering and rot. And when Covid-19 hit, the playground became a budgetary “non-topic,” according to Lisa Holmes, who taught at WES for 12 years until last year.
In the early months of the pandemic, when fear of surface transmission of the virus was rampant, WES, like most other schools, closed its playground. In spite of the closure, a child was playing on the main structure in August when her foot went through a wooden plank, Principal Mary Beth Rodman told the Independent. The girl fell and cut her lip, prompting her father to call 911 for first aid.
Rodman said the child was not transported to the hospital by ambulance. But, after inspection, fire officials condemned the structure.
Rodman said she was shocked when she saw its condition herself. “It was quite remarkable,” she said. “Despite regular repairs, replacements, and inspections, the deterioration was rapid.” Soon afterward, the entire playground was torn down, leaving a mostly bare spot in its place.
Wellfleet Fire Chief Rich Pauley did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
Coronavirus transmission research has now shown that the risk of contracting the virus from contaminated surfaces is low, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and playgrounds have reopened. But WES students remain limited to a “field of wood chips,” as Holmes calls it, that once supported a climbing structure, swings, and a seesaw.
On the Wood Chips
Wila Parkington, a WES first grader, has figured out how to have fun on the wood chips. Her secret: “Shovels and buckets!” When that gets boring, she switches to bouncy balls and jump ropes. On the walkway, school staff have painted areas for four square and hopscotch. Meanwhile, Erika Meads’s children have “complained every single day,” she told the Independent. “They were bored at recess.”
Experts in child development emphasize the importance of recess in the school day. “Kids accomplish a great deal of cognitive, emotional, and social development through free play and physical activity,” said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University. A good playground, she said, facilitates this growth. “It’s a staple, really,” she added.
It may be at least two more years before the playground is replaced. The next opportunity for WES to make use of the town’s capital expense budget for a new playground would be the summer of 2023 — unless something more pressing pushes the project off yet again.
“Something really needed to be done,” Holmes said, so she joined the school’s playground committee and spotlighted the issue in a Facebook post, where it caught the attention of Rhonda Fowler, a member of the Wellfleet Community Preservation Committee (CPC). Fowler encouraged Holmes to submit an application. But to be considered for funding this year, the playground committee had to get its application in by Aug. 9.
“At that point, we didn’t have anything,” said Rodman. She and the playground committee scrambled to scrape together some preliminary details, and at the Aug. 18 CPC meeting, Holmes presented an estimate of $383,000 for building and maintenance costs. CPC members were sympathetic but asked to see a design and detailed budget before bringing the playground proposal to the select board.
In the best case, said Rodman, the playground would be “up and ready to go by the middle of next summer.” The timing depends on the playground committee pulling together documentation for the CPC and setting up a bidding process for vendors. Rodman said she is working with the director of finance of the Nauset Public Schools, hoping to contact four playground vendors already vetted by the state. If she can, the committee can skip the step of submitting a request for quote, speeding up the process. The playground committee aims to iron out these details in time for the April 2022 annual town meeting. If CPC funding is approved then, construction could begin next summer.
Rodman has also consulted WES’s smallest stakeholders. Using a survey called “My Perfect Playground,” students from kindergarten to second grade sketched their recommendations. Swings were a common request; a castle-themed playhouse was another recurring pitch. But opinions diverged when it came to the finer details. Entry to the castle should be via a ladder, one respondent proposed, while another student pushed for a drawbridge. More recommendations: a “firetruck to play in,” a “twisty fire pole” paired with a “twisty slide,” and a zipline. One stakeholder showed little interest in a traditional playground and just wanted a golf course.
Students in the third through fifth grades completed a more “grown-up” survey, Rodman said. A climbing structure, a block of 44 voters deemed, was the highest priority, followed by tunnels and swings. These results nearly mirrored those from a survey sent to staff and parents. (The adults favored slides over tunnels.)
WES considered a community build effort like the one that produced Puma Park in Truro and the Orleans Elementary School playground. “Those playgrounds have so much character,” Holmes said. “Puma Park really just screams ‘Truro,’ having that nautical, Cape Cod-y theme.”
But after speaking with an organizer of the Orleans project, Holmes was discouraged by logistical hurdles, she said, like creating a nonprofit organization. “We need something for these kids to climb on as soon as possible,” she said.
Even if the CPC and select board approve the project, grants may not cover the cost in full. To fund the remainder, the WES PTA plans to seek donations. “The PTA generally donates about $10,000 a year to the school,” Holmes said. “Our president had said that she’d be more than happy to pledge to make that happen.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, published in print on Oct. 7, inaccurately described a wall of the Wellfleet Elementary School as “crumbling.” The required repairs were caused by weathering, reports Principal Mary Beth Rodman.