Rebuilt playground a hit with pupils


The playground equipment at Columbia's Thunder Hill Elementary School was 30 years old, and it showed.

The two pieces were sparse and uninviting -- one, a dull climbing dome of sorts, the other, a bare-bones set of thin, gray monkey bars.

At recess, kids would fling open the doors, survey their playing options and choose, time after time, to leave the scant equipment the way it was before they got there -- alone.

No more.

Last week, Thunder Hill became the first elementary school to use county Board of Education funding to replace aging and unsafe playground equipment at many of the county's older schools.

With $10,000 of system money, parents at Thunder Hill were able to complete the fund raising they had started more than a year ago and purchase a colorful, state-of-the-art $30,000 play station for the school's more than 400 pupils.

The equipment has been in use for about a week, but the school held an official celebratory opening Friday, with cake and cookies.

The pupils, however, couldn't wait for Friday to test the red, yellow and blue 66-foot-by-20-foot plastic and metal play yard.

"Oh, they were ecstatic," said Suzan Marcon, chairwoman of Thunder Hill's 2-year-old playground committee, remembering Sept 18, when the equipment was deemed ready for use. "They just ran to it and jumped on it."

In the week since that day, grown-ups have seen the new play area get more attention than the old one did in a year.

"It's hard to see the equipment for the kids now," said Thunder Hill Principal Thomas Bruner. "It's getting so crowded, some of the kids have said they'll just wait until it's not so new anymore."

That's a big change from recesses of old, said 8-year-old Jessica Sayre, noting that only small groups play kickball or soccer or hang out on the blacktop.

"Everybody plays on it, and barely anybody goes anywhere else. It's fun, and there's monkey bars, and it's big, and it's new, and it's nice and fun," Jessica said, barely stopping for breath.

"You already said fun," said her friend Adrienne Denne, 7.

"Oh, yeah," said Jessica. "But it is fun."

Marcon, who, with the other five committee members, hand-picked each of the 18 pieces, said the playground is more than fun.

The "climb-across" is a challenge for 8-year-old Adam Leatherman, and it strengthens his upper body, Marcon said.

The "shifting sands panel," with metal beads inside, isn't just interesting to see and hear, she said, it's good for children's tactile skills as well.

Committee members are also proud that the playground is disabled-accessible, which is rare for school-based playgrounds.

Severely disabled pupils at the school -- there are nine -- can use more than 50 percent of the equipment, Marcon said, including a clatter ramp that moves and rattles when children walk, run or jump across it.

"We've never had anything, I mean anything, for them to use before," Marcon said.

Educational uses aside, the new playground is a success because it gives kids so many options, Bruner said.

It has numerous ladder-like devices, two slides -- one a spiral, one a double slide -- a firefighter's pole and a plastic beanstalk, a movable tic-tac-toe board, bubbled-out windows to peer and make faces out of, and two talking-tubes that are reminiscent of tin-can telephones.

"They don't have to scream to be heard," said Marcon, as she watched 8-year-old Anthony Scafone put his face inside and holler at his cringing friend on the other end. "They just enjoy doing that."

The new equipment has another benefit, a third-grade class has pointed out.

The plastic newness of the slides creates a toe-tingling sensation of static electricity, making hair stick up and out, and giving kids the power to "shock" their friends with one poke of an index finger.

"Oh, yeah, that is fun," said David Berkley-Yokie, 8, beginning to trade pokes with a friend, and apparently remembering that he was wasting his 20 minutes of recess talking to grown-ups when he could be having fun.

So off he ran to climb, slide, jump, hide, shout, run and poke some more.

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