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Imagination at Play

“It should have a castle with a tower, and a slide that you can slide down from the top of the tower!”

“These are monkey bars so we can climb over the soccer field while they play soccer.”

“How about a tree house…with a bathroom?”

That’s a little bit of what I overheard when the students of Oakley Elementary School in Asheville were asked to draw their vision of a “dream playground.” There was no shortage of good ideas from these kids.

The exercise wasn’t purely for fun – it was part of the KaBOOM! process to empower kids in the community. KaBOOM! is the national nonprofit creating great places to play, inspiring communities to promote and support play, and working to drive the national discussion about the importance of play in fostering healthy and productive lives.

Here at BCBSNC, an important part of our mission is to improve the health and well-being of our communities – and a new outdoor recreation space for children and families is a tangible step toward that goal. BCBSNC provided funding for the new play space and next month, more than 130 volunteers from the company will travel to Asheville to construct a dream playground at Oakley Elementary School.

But before the new play space can be constructed, there is a lot of planning to be done. On April 9, a KaBOOM! project manager, parent volunteers, school officials and students began the design process. I was lucky enough to be invited to witness the birth of Oakley Elementary’s new play space.

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The school lies in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and serves as a community center point. School officials estimate that more than 1,600 children will be served by the new play space. But first, the space needs to be designed and play equipment selected.

The planning session started with school officials and parent volunteers mapping out the dimensions of the new play space that will replace the school’s current playground, which is in need of some updates. The new area will be open to all, a community resource where everyone is welcome.

“One of the main reasons we continue to support KaBOOM! is that we share a mutual commitment to helping North Carolinians build vibrant, inclusive spaces where they can lead healthy, active lives,” said King Prather, who is BCBSNC’s general counsel and whose family has strong ties to Asheville.

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Moving Forward with Big Ideas

Plans were made to re-use and re-purpose some of the materials in the current playground, including border beams and gravel. Most importantly, the group focused on ensuring they build a truly inclusive play space, with accessibility for people with disabilities.

The planners discussed the importance of incorporating the tree that now stands in the center of the playground into the new design. Among other reasons, sparing the tree provides a lesson for the children: progress doesn’t have to mean steamrolling our environment.

The dimensions for the new play space were carefully measured and diagrammed. The new design will retain roughly the same footprint as the current space.

When the measuring was done, Oakley students gathered in the school’s cafeteria to draw their ideas of a dream playground. (Note to self: If I ever want to spark children’s creativity, I should just ask them to draw their dream playground.) Some common themes emerged from the students’ drawings: climbing walls, zip lines, swings, slides, even castles.

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The students proudly displayed their drawings, which would form the basis of discussion in the next part of the planning process.

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The drawings were posted in the school’s media room, where parent volunteers and school officials had the chance to take a look at just what kind of play space the children really wanted. The planners tried to consider all of the children’s ideas, even the ones that seemed a bit impractical.

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The children’s most popular dream playground features were dutifully tallied, with a zipline being the top choice. For obvious reasons, a zipline won’t be included in the final play space, but the planners considered other equipment that would give children a similar thrill.

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In a discussion facilitated by KaBOOM! Project Manager Katie Applebaum, the planning group reviewed catalogues of playground equipment. There was a lot to consider: How many swings should be included? Where would each piece fit? What about accessibility? And as was the case with the children earlier in the day, there was no shortage of great ideas from the planning group.

After considering the pros and cons of different options, the group made equipment recommendations to a team of KaBOOM! designers, who came up with a suitable design.

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From Big Dreams to Reality

On June 19, BCBSNC volunteers will help build the entire play space in six hours of well-coordinated labor.

The Asheville project is the seventh KaBOOM! build for BCBSNC employee volunteers, with play spaces already successfully constructed in Winston-Salem, Durham, Greensboro (two locations), Wilmington and Fayetteville. Through these KaBOOM! projects, we hope to help create safe places to exercise outdoors, to help bring communities closer together and make North Carolina an even better place to live…and play!

We’ll be sure to update you with a follow-up report. Meanwhile, the students at Oakley Elementary School will count down the days until their dream playground is made real.

Chris Privett

About Chris Privett

Chris Privett is a communications specialist at BCBSNC, assisting the company’s leaders with speeches and presentations. Chris has a particular interest in sharing stories about BCBSNC’s role as a committed partner in North Carolina’s communities. His communications career began in 1990 in television news, later transitioning to public relations roles in nonprofits.