Playground renovation provides AE Phillips upgraded space, feel

By Malcolm Butler

It’s just a playground.

But in a day and age where many education systems seem to be steering away from things like recess, and PE, and arts and music, AE Phillips Laboratory School Director Jenny Blalock said the on-campus lab school is not.

In fact it’s doubling down on the positive impact of those extracurricular things within an elementary education system.

Thus, the approximate $800,000 investment on the western most playground adjacent to the school, something Blalock said will have a direct impact on the approximately 420 students that call the school home each year and for the many hundreds if not thousands for years to come.

“It’s extremely important,” said Blalock about the project. “The reason why is I believe and our entire faculty believes in the importance of the kids getting out there and playing. It seems like in education these days they are cutting PE, recess, music, art … But we are firm in the fact we are going to protect that. Our kids still get recess everyday. Even our old students have a recess-lunchtime where they are able to get outside.

“Our faculty just did a book study on Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Basically it’s brain-based research. It’s stuff we already knew but it basically supported getting outside and having recess and getting sunlight and having social time. It was going as deep as linking Vitamin D to comprehension scores.”

In fact Blalock said the school had to request approval from the state for the project, and the book helped provide important points used in the defense of the request.

Blalock with the majority of those funds being spent on the dirt work and retaining wall that runs parallel to the school on the western most side of the playground.

Part of the project included new sod on the playground as well as a new drainage system.

“There were drainage issues,” said Blalock. “Prior to Covid we had a year where it rained and the kids didn’t get outside on the playground for almost six weeks.”

Speaking of Covid, federal and state grants due to the pandemic helped kick start the project.

“Some of our funds, not all of them but some of them, funnel through Lincoln Parish,” said Blalock. “That’s money from the states. But when Covid hit, schools were given grants (ESSER) to help and a portion of that could go towards improving outdoor spaces in case you had to do outdoor learning or social distancing. That’s really what gave us the jump start to do this.

“We had some funds available and we felt if we could build upon those, we could make it happen. It was a really large project for a little school to get into. The ESSER money is really what jump started it.”

Elementary school students at AEP look on last spring as work was being done on the lab school’s west side playground. (Courtesy Photo)

Another portion of the money came through a fundraiser where AE Phillips partnered with the College of Education and Louisiana Tech through the ‘Play It Forward’ campaign.

“We reached out to AEP alumni,” said Blalock. “We started a grass roots effort about two years ago getting a database of alumni by going through old yearbooks, talking to people. That (database) is something we didn’t have up until that point.”

Prior to the work on the playground, much of the square footage was taken up by a large hill that ran parallel to the western most side of the playgrounds footprint. That area also include some pine trees that had been on the hill for decades.

“Cutting down the trees, removing the hill and putting the retaining wall up has given us so much more square footage,” said Blalock. “I told someone that for those of us who work here, when we walked out on the playground for the first time, we had the same feeling for our new playground as the first time I walked into Louisiana Tech’s new baseball stadium. I was just like, ‘wow.'”

Blalock said that some of the existing playground equipment will be replaced. The existing piece of equipment on the southern most end of the playground will remain, while the other two pieces — which are much older and beyond worn down after decades of use  — will be replaced.

The school has already ordered the newest piece, and Blalock said it will be installed sometime in September or October (see image below).

“After we get that piece installed, we have some remaining funds to use,” said Blalock. “We want to see how the playground changes with the installation of this new piece, and then we will go from there. We are just going to take methodical steps.”

The school’s second playground located on the east side of the property is next for a facelift, although Blalock said it’s still a ways down the road and won’t be nearly as costly.

“That one is dream that we are still working towards,” said Blalock.

Rendering of the new playground equipment that is scheduled to be installed at AE Phillips in the fall.