AAOS Bulletin - December 2006

Local orthopaedic organizations find rewards on the playground

By Peter Pollack

One of the most exciting aspects of the AAOS Annual Meeting is the Safe and Accessible Playground Build, on the day before the convention officially opens. Hundreds of Academy members and their families, as well as community representatives and industry volunteers, converge on a preselected site to spend one day in the fresh air turning a vacant piece of land into an accessible recreational park for neighborhood kids.

In recent years, several local and regional orthopaedic organizations have carried the spirit of the AAOS playground builds back to their home communities, conducting playground builds of their own.

Barren ground
A playground build starts and finishes on the same day, but the process begins months earlier: finding a suitable site, procuring funding, recruiting assistance, purchasing equipment, and planning the build day. Like AAOS, many of the smaller organizations begin by partnering with KaBOOM!—a not-for-profit corporation that has pioneered and promoted the playground build concept for more than a decade.

The playground at Lake Phalen starts to take shape, courtesy of the Minnesota Orthopaedic Society.

“You can buy the KaBOOM! toolkit and do it on your own, or have them do the legwork for you,” says Alexander Blevens, MD, who worked on the Mississippi Orthopaedic Society (MOS) build. “I highly recommend hiring them to do the legwork.”

Some organizations—like the Tucson Orthopaedic Institute (TOI)—begin with a site. Lawrence R. Housman, MD, president of TOI, had learned of a local elementary school through his Rotary Club. “They didn’t really have a playground,” he says, “just a little slide provided by the Rotary Club.”

After talking to the principal, TOI contacted the Tucson Unified School District, which owned the potential playground site. “If they [district officials] don’t get excited about it, it doesn’t happen,” says Dr. Housman. Finally, representatives from KaBOOM! met with local officials and families.

But you don’t have to have a site selected in advance. The Minnesota Orthopaedic Society partnered with the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department, according to Anthony A. Stans, MD. “Parks located a site with a dilapidated, unsafe playground—a very pretty spot near Lake Phalen in St. Paul, where Gillette Children’s Hospital (an orthopaedic hospital) used to be,” explains Dr. Stans.

The MOS, on the other hand, had the opposite problem. Hurricane Katrina had destroyed hundreds of playgrounds. With the assistance of KaBOOM!, the MOS chose to rebuild a playground in an impoverished neighborhood on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. “The school had been party destroyed, and a lot of the kids in the neighborhood were still living in FEMA (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers,” recalls Dr. Blevens.

Planning the build
Once the site is chosen, planning and logistics move into high gear. Simple playgrounds on clear land can cost as little as $5,000, but most projects run well into five figures or more. Even organizations with enthusiastically philanthropic members usually need to look for outside funding. Fortunately, local corporations and health care providers are often eager to associate themselves with goodwill projects in their neighborhoods.

Similarly, although ethical considerations limit certain types of contributions from health care-related industries, attaching the name of one’s organization to a playground build is an ethical way to publicize the brand and assist the community at the same time. As Dr. Housman explains, “New ethical guidelines regulate what drug and equipment companies can do. Giving to a charity like this is permissible. Donors are listed on the t-shirt and on a sign at the playground.”

No matter how much advance preparation goes into a playground build, it’s impossible to foresee every eventuality, as the Minnesota Orthopaedic Society found out. When Park and Rec employees and KaBOOM! representatives in St. Paul went out to prepare the build site, they discovered that the proposed playground site was directly over an old roadbed.

“Thank goodness we were partnering with Park and Rec,” says Dr. Stans, “because they got a small backhoe with a jackhammer on it, and literally hammered through this old concrete roadbed to create the holes for the posts for the playground. Drilling the holes is supposed to be a two-hour operation with a power auger, and it literally took two days.”

A playground is born

At the Annual Meeting build, volunteers associated directly or indirectly with AAOS make up the build crew. Smaller organizations may need to do some recruiting. Other health care organizations can help provide the necessary 200- to 300-person workforce. “The employees of Gillette Children’s Hospital had a big group,” says Dr. Stans. “including nurses and physical therapists.”

Perhaps because they were rebuilding a playground destroyed by Katrina, the MOS had no problem finding enough laborers. “We had more volunteers than we needed—including representatives from a local military base,” says Dr. Blevens. “The military was really good. They were very, very helpful—a lot of young men and women who were very active and strong.

I would highly recommend anybody who’s near a military base to contact them,” he adds. “They like to help out with these kinds of things.”

TOI turns their builds into community celebrations, with “thank-you” t-shirts for volunteers. “We generally run out of t-shirts,” says Dr. Housman, “which encourages people to come early. But they all show up for lunch, so that’s good.” TOI partners with the Tucson Medical Center, which supplies tents and nurses who can provide wellness information to community members who stop by. The finale includes a mariachi show by parents and teachers for the local children who will benefit from the playground.

Dr. Stans agrees that community excitement is a big part of such an event. “We had kids trying to play on the playground before it was completed.”

“It’s amazing how you can start with some holes in the ground, a pile of mulch, a bunch of parts, and all these eager people, and then somehow, running around like ants, they just get it all done,” enthuses Dr. Blevens. “It’s a very satisfying experience. It has brought our orthopaedic community closer to this school district, which we’ve now kind of adopted—a nice side effect.”

A community benefit
Is the hard work worth it? What becomes of a playground after the last tools are packed up and the volunteers go home? Dr. Blevens has revisited the Mississippi playground a few times. “Kids are using it. They haven’t destroyed it yet,” he laughs. “And it’s improved the community situation because it’s open to everyone, not just for school use. A lot of kids are within walking distance of that playground.”

Dr. Stans also feels that the playground has been a benefit to the community. “I’ve received a follow-up thank you from the St. Paul parks people. They’re maintaining it and it is continuing to be an outdoor resource for kids in that neighborhood.”

TOI has two playground builds under its belt and another one in the planning stages. Dr. Housman hopes to keep building them as long as the projects get approval. He likes that people from the community—sometimes even those without children—participate.

“Playgrounds have often been vandalized but we’ve had no trouble because when the neighborhood gets involved, the kids get involved,” he says. “I think there would probably be big trouble for any vandals, because this is a community thing. It wasn’t like somebody from out there just sort of planted it here.”

Helping to build a safe and accessible playground working with local people who care about their neighborhood, and seeing children use it are rich and rewarding experiences. Why not share the experience by participating in the 2007 Annual Meeting playground build?

Special thanks to Joanne Smith, of JSmith Business Development Group, who helped coordinate the Tucson Orthopaedic Institute builds and contributed background information for this article.

Thanks to these local playground builds!

  • Oregon Association of Orthopaedists – Bridger Elementary School, Portland, Ore.
  • South Carolina Orthopaedic Association – City of Charleston Department of Parks, Charleston, S.C.
  • New York State Society of Orthopaedic Surgeons – City of Albany, Albany, N.Y.
  • Tucson Orthopaedic Institute – C.E. Rose Elementary School, Tucson, Ariz.
  • Minnesota Orthopaedic Society – St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department, St. Paul, Minn.
  • Tucson Orthopaedic Institute – Reynolds Elementary School, Tucson, Ariz.
  • Mississippi Orthopaedic Society – Kreole Elementary School, Moss Point, Miss.

(Information provided by KaBOOM!)

AAOS seeks volunteers for 2007 playground build
Playground Build 2007 is February 13, 2007 in San Diego. No experience is necessary, and participants are invited to assist for an hour or the whole day. The build will begin at 7:00 a.m.; the ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at approximately 3:30 p.m. Busses will provide transportation between the convention center and the playground site. Visit online to register or find more information.


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