For many St. Martin’s Episcopal School students, the lower school playground evokes visions of innocent play on brisk fall days. It provides them with lifelong memories of lasting friendships created while swinging on the monkey bars or rocketing down the slides. This fall, the playground got an upgrade. The new playground is state-of the-art and is built to last for generations to come.
“Many of my favorite memories of lower school took place right there, on that playground,” said Junior Anna Beth Talbot
Although the former playground stood for decades, it desperately needed upgrades, according to Director of Institutional Advancement Lisa Davis.
“(The playground) was there for several decades,” Davis said. “It was outdated, and it was time for a refresh.”
The wood in the previous playground often had to be replaced. St. Martin’s had been considering the possibility of building a new playground for several years, according to Head of Lower School Ford Dieth.
Dieth felt student input was valuable in the planning stages.
“The students have been involved considerably,” Dieth said. “We got their take on their needs, thoughts, wants, and desires.”
Davis agreed that student input was important, crediting some of the planning to the lower school’s Global Day of Design in April 2016.
“(The playground) was part of a design thinking project,” Davis said. “At St. Martin’s, all of our lower school students talked about what they wanted in a playground and what was most important to them. Their ideas were amazing. You saw continuity among all of them. It was so much fun to see where their imaginations brought them.”
St. Martin’s purchased the equipment from Planet Recess and also hired them to install it, according to Davis.
Chief Doozer Troy Peloquin, a New Orleanian who works for Planet Recess, helped install the playground. Peloquin has built over 100 playgrounds with Planet Recess and Playworld Systems, but his experience in the field goes farther back with his volunteer work with KaBOOM! Hurricane Katrina provided his inspiration and fueled his passion for building playgrounds.
“I started building playgrounds with a group called KaBOOM!” Peloquin said. “They’re a national nonprofit. The goal is to get a playground within walking distance of every child. So after the storm, it was the perfect opportunity for them to come to New Orleans and start building playgrounds. I was working at the Recovery School District (of Louisiana) in operations (with) volunteers and donations.”
With the help of corporate sponsors, Peloquin helped build six playgrounds in one day and went on to build even more all over the Greater New Orleans area.
“It was a blast,” Peloquin said. “It was the silver lining that came out of Katrina.”
Playgrounds are crucial in every child’s life, according to Peloquin. Playgrounds are not just sources of entertainment; they play a key role in a child’s social development.
“In my opinion, the most important thing is free play,” Peloquin said. “You have structured play like baseball, football, soccer, and lacrosse, and then you have free play. That’s where you make up your own rules and make up your own games. You really learn how to socialize. You learn how to interact. You learn how to problem solve. You learn so much.”
There are plenty of opportunities for interaction in the new St. Martin’s playground. It has three slides, swings, a rock wall, a drum panel, bells and chimes, three decks, a number panel, and an alphabet panel, according to Peloquin.
Funding for the project was also a grass-roots St. Martin’s effort. The Saints Community Organization raised money through the 2017 Spring Gala and gave some to the lower school for the new playground, according to Davis.
In addition to the SCO’s contribution, individual donations and gifts in kind helped make the playground’s construction possible, according to Davis. Palmisano Contractors donated their services by providing the demolition of the old playground and by solving drainage issues. Mullin Landscape Associates, the company that landscaped the Julie Dieth Bell Garden, provided the sod.
The playground is also state-of-the-art in terms of safety.
Although the lower schoolers now have a playground that upholds safety regulations, the playgrounds at St. Martin’s weren’t always safe, according to Dieth. When Dieth attended St. Martin’s in the 1970s, the playground had a fort, a tire swing, a jungle gym, and a metal slide, which was recently taken down. The jungle gym was a lot of fun but especially dangerous, according to Dieth.
“Regularly, we had broken collarbones and broken arms,” Dieth said.
The new playground is safer for students, and offers them a place to socialize, create games, swing, and play. Janet Russo, known to most as “Mrs. Janet,” had lifelong ties to the St. Martin’s community for many years. The new playground will be named in Mrs. Janet’s honor, which will give it a deeper meaning. Memories of the love she gave to the community and of her skirt with many pockets will live on in the new playground’s name.