Playgrounds play healing role in Baltimore neighborhoods

Three Baltimore schools get new playgrounds

The volunteers at Gilmor Elementary School worked diligently at their assigned tasks Saturday.

They came from the neighborhood and beyond to rake dirt and roll out sod. They painted a game of Twister and a map of the United States onto the blacktop. They assembled swings, bridges and a slide for what is soon to become a new playground for the school.

Near where they worked stands the public housing complex where Freddie Gray was arrested in the spring. His death a week later of injuries suffered while in police custody, touched off turmoil throughout the city.

But there was no chaos or unrest on this day.

"This is an example of what is possible for the city," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who stopped by to encourage the volunteers. "This is a part of healing Baltimore."

The playground may be especially helpful for the area's youngest residents. Studies have shown that living in violent neighborhoods can cause hidden trauma in children, organizers said. Building anxieties can erupt into bad behavior, difficulty sleeping and poor concentration in school.

"When you live in a community like this, where children see and feel the impact of violence, [a playground] can become an outlet where they can work off that negative energy — but also a place where children can feel safe," said Bronwyn Mayden, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who helped coordinate volunteers and raise money for the playground.

The Gilmor project was one of three playgrounds set up by volunteers across Baltimore on Saturday as part of an initiative dubbed Play More B'More, put together by KaBOOM!, which promotes the importance of play and recreation in children's lives. The other two play areas were built at Tench Tilghman Elementary on North Patterson Park Avenue and at the nonprofit LIGHT Health & Wellness on North Monroe Street.

Gilmor was a natural location for a playground in the aftermath of Gray's death, organizers said.

"Gilmor is critical because it is in a community still recovering from what happened this year … but working for a better future," said James Siegal, president of KaBOOM! But he added that there are plenty of other areas of the city with similar social and economic problems.

At Tilghman Elementary, Principal Jael Yon said the school's old playground had become a dilapidated eyesore. She said not only would a new one give the children a better place to play but could add something positive to the psyche of the community.

"When you have something nice, it creates a sense of pride for the school," she said.

The playground projects were organized through a collaboration of individuals and groups that helped raise money, provided materials and rounded up volunteers, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, playground manufacturer Playworld, Baltimore native and professional basketball player Rudy Gay. and OneBaltimore, a new organization formed to join the public and private sectors to address the city's most pressing problems.

As part of the playground construction, organizers seek to engage youths in working for their communities. Baltimore Corps, which says its mission is to develop the next generation of talent, provided several of the youngest volunteers. One, 18-year-old Sha'Quan Roberts, said, "It feels empowering to give back."

Bryant Noakes helped paint the map of the United States on the blacktop at Gilmor Elementary, where his son goes to school. He said he tries to give back to the community as much as he can. Building the playground was just another way to make the neighborhood a better place.

"Just because we're in a low-income area, people think everyone here is below human value," Noakes said. "But everyone here wants better for their children."

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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