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California City Solutions: San Mateo Develops Student Curriculum for Park Playground Renovation

March 6, 2015
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
The 2014 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. San Mateo’s Beresford Playground Elementary School Program was submitted in 2014 for the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government award category.
In September 2012, eight people came to San Mateo’s Beresford Community Center to discuss the planned renovation of the Beresford Park children’s playground. Typically eight residents would provide adequate feedback for the park planning staff to move forward on an initial design, however, city staff believed that this large community park warranted larger community participation. Staff decided to develop an outreach plan to connect with students and increase community involvement for its renovation. 
The park planning staff restarted the public outreach effort by specifically engaging local students and their parents. They created an online community forum for parents to comment and discuss the renovation, while the Recreation Youth Services staff drafted a classroom curriculum to educate and involve students in the design planning process.
Staff worked to involve students in the process of the playground renovation and gain feedback from the park’s target audience. The outlined curriculum included five weeks of interactive sessions with students in their classroom for 45 minutes weekly. Youth Services staff would coordinate the activities and lesson plans for those segments.
The Youth Services team took their draft curriculum to the two closest elementary schools: Beresford Park, Meadow Heights and Beresford Elementary. One of the two schools, Beresford Elementary, liked and accepted the proposal, with the fifth grade teachers agreeing that it would be a good fit for their classes.
With the help of the two classroom teachers, the Youth Services staff refined the curriculum.
  • Week 1: Classes met at the Beresford playground. Youth Services staff reviewed the playground renovation proposal and explained how the department gathers ideas and develops a design for a new facility. In three groups, students took measurements of the playground, reviewed the current architectural playground drawings and made lists of their favorite and least favorite parts of the existing playground.
  • Week 2: Students met in the classroom and focused on playground amenities and associated costs. Students also prioritized the pieces they wanted to see in the park within a defined budget.
  • Week 3: Students learned how to gather community feedback by designing a short survey which they sampled on their classmates. They were then tasked with giving the survey to five of their friends or family members. In total the students gathered about 190 completed surveys with valid data for the project.
  • Week 4: Students learned how to analyze the survey results, tallied by Youth Services staff, and developed graphs of the data, discussed how the results should be used and compared the different results to their own surveys.
  • Week 5: Students received a blank site plan for the project area and were given the opportunity to draw their own ideal playground plan for Beresford Park. They shared their drawing with the classroom and Youth Services staff posted the most innovative designs on the online community forum for other involved community members to view. 
The Beresford playground renovation has expanded community involvement, involving students, parents, teachers and a principal who all had an impact on the two draft playground designs. The information collected by the students helped design the playground so that it would appeal to all ages and determined an overall theme. Examples of this include a limited use of sand as this is mostly for younger park visitors, and the inclusion of tall slides and high swings, to meet the needs of the older youth and keep them positively engaged in the park experience. 
Following the last day of the classroom curriculum, the department moved forward with developing the designs for the playground. The city presented two different designs to the community in October 2013.
The city also wanted the give the students from the classroom project an opportunity to review the draft designs. Since the students had all graduated to sixth grade, they were no longer at Beresford Elementary. The Youth Services staff decided to email the students’ parents and invite them to a pizza party.
The pizza party provided an opportunity for students to comment on the designs and reconnect with their old classmates, many of which had not seen each other since graduating from their elementary school. Out of 48 students, 25 attended. Participating staff and parents remarked that the event reinforced the sense of community that the students and parents had for their elementary school, their neighborhood playground and the Beresford Park project.
The program provides a good template for the Parks and Recreation Department moving forward. The curriculum is fairly standard and can be applied easily to other playground projects or park design studies. Youth Services staff reorganized their existing schedules to accommodate for the development of the curriculum, the classroom materials and the classroom time. The department hopes to replicate the project model for the future renovation of the playground in its signature Downtown Park. Although finding a school to partner with will continue to be a challenge, the department believes the process is valuable and provides a great opportunity to involve students directly in a community activity.
The Parks and Recreation Department expects to go out to bid on construction for the new Beresford playground area early this year. The new playground area is currently scheduled to be open in spring of 2016.

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