Jim Roberts hasn’t always been “Mr. Playground” in Napa, Calif. In fact, four years ago he knew nothing about the nuances of pea gravel versus hardwood fiber as playground surfaces or the hazard created by open S-hooks on playground structures.

Four years ago he was a retired merchant and school volunteer who happened to be at McPherson Elementary School when a 5-year-old girl fell off a turning bar. She opened a nasty gash on her head where it hit the concrete. “Thank the Lord her body hit the sand in the box [the surface around the equipment] before her head hit the cement,” says Roberts.

The incident made Roberts take a good look at the school’s playground equipment for the first time. He discovered that it was old and decaying, and the play structure was 2 feet away from the box’s cement perimeter. “The playground was nothing more than a few simple events [pieces of playground equipment], some of which were identical to those I played on as a child—and I’m 75,” says Roberts. “It was obvious that some events had already been pulled out and, worst of all, the equipment was much, much too close to the perimeter. By state and federal codes, the closest an item can be to the perimeter is 6 feet.”

That day Roberts approached the principal of the school, who happened to have a catalog of playground equipment. They looked through it to research how much a new playground would cost. “We wanted to make it safer and better, and of course, a whole lot more fun,” says Roberts. He didn’t realize it then, but he had just found a way to fill his free time. This “smallish kindergarten playground” was just the beginning. Roberts is now on his 25th playground installation—and counting.

After meeting with the principal, Roberts contacted an equipment company. The local dealer helped him plot out the playground and gave him a bid. The playground—equipment, box, and other costs—would run $18,000. So Roberts contacted Community Projects Inc., a local service group that gives money to Napa Valley projects. The group donated $8,000. He contacted the superintendent of schools, who contributed $5,000 from a slush fund. Then he went to his Kiwanis club, which came up with the remaining $5,000.

The Kiwanis members took on the project as their own. For this first playground, the club’s volunteers were “pretty scared,” according to Roberts, and they did all the work themselves. The small playground was “very appropriate to get us started,” he says. And although that first play structure went up in the rain, Roberts says it provided a wonderful opportunity for members to band together. “We knew we were doing good for these kids, and we were pretty proud of ourselves.” That was four years ago.

After installing that playground, Roberts drove around to check out the local schools. He found that practically every one of the playgrounds in the Napa Valley School District was unsafe and out of federal and state code. “I have found many, many playgrounds in the same condition as the first school’s,” Roberts says. “Four of them were later turned into planter boxes. That’s all they were good for.” Because Roberts knows school districts are always strapped for money, he wanted his group to do something about it.

Roberts and the Kiwanis club built one playground that year. The next year they took on two playground projects. They built five in 2000 and eight in 2001. This year they did nine, including one with two playgrounds where the equipment alone cost $75,000. “I have received some gentle ribbing from some of our Kiwanians suggesting we should only do two or three playgrounds a year,” says Roberts. “But I simply didn’t feel that was fair to the children at the end of the projects. At that rate they might have to wait eight to 10 years. That is not acceptable.”

Five schools remain for a total of six more playgrounds. Roberts has contacted the first school scheduled for next spring and will contact the rest as soon as school is back in session. “In the fall we will be planning for the rest of the schools for spring construction,” he says. “I have to give our Kiwanians a break before they, in turn, break my neck!”

The Kiwanis Club has 120 members. While the playgrounds are the group’s main project right now, club members also run myriad volunteer events. For example, they take special education students on field trips throughout the school year. They run a summer reading program and provide funds and encouragement to a local probationary-student school during the year. They provide funding and manpower for the annual children’s Halloween party at the fairgrounds, an all-night high school graduation party, and the annual Christmas in July construction and repair for the home of a needy family. Even with this busy volunteer schedule, 15 to 30 club members take part in each playground installation.

“We have saved our school district hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Roberts. “The 25 playgrounds we have built are worth more than $1 million. By using donations from Community Projects Inc., the parent groups at the various schools, and the Kiwanis club, and providing thousands and thousands of hours of free labor, we made all this happen."

Along the way, Roberts and his group have learned the ins and outs, timelines, and strategies to make a playground come together. He doesn’t do it alone anymore. The Kiwanis group expects and receives the cooperation of the school’s parent group to help raise funds and donate man-hours to put the project together.

“It’s very doable,” says Roberts. “You just have to roll up your sleeves and go at it.”

How It Works

As for the nuts and bolts, the playground will cost thousands of dollars. Roberts’ range has been $13,000 to $75,000 per school, depending on the size of the playground, the number of pieces or events, and the original condition of the box, the surface that surrounds the playground. The cost is in the equipment, other necessary materials such as bark to create a soft surface in the box, and an employee from the equipment company to supervise the work on the installation days.

The overall time frame spans nine months to a year from the first meeting to the installation. This includes a lag of roughly 60 days between order and delivery of the equipment. The installation takes two days, from 8 a.m. Friday to 5 p.m. Saturday. On Sunday, a few people distribute the bark.

Roberts is quite busy during the two days of construction. “We do a lot of pre-assembly so that when we have proceeded with the actual structure to a certain point, we will be able to attach the next event,” says Roberts. “Assembling these items to the side is a good way to keep a lot of folks busy who are a bit awkward in actual construction. I enjoy making these things happen, making sure that all the volunteers feel useful and happy that they came to help out.”

When Roberts and his fellow Kiwanians set their sights on the next school to tackle, Roberts meets with the principal, whom he describes as “the captain of the ship.”

Most of Roberts’ time is spent with the parents heading up the various projects. “It works out that I do all the planning with the principal and the parents who are on the committee,” he says. “I like to work with a group of two to four parents. They in turn seek out input from other parents, teachers and, best of all, students. This is after I give them several copies of the playground equipment company’s color catalog.”

The first meeting with the principal and parents sets up the basics: what equipment the group wants and what other needs there are, such as a new box. Then several more meetings are held to modify the plans to make the equipment more affordable and to make sure everything fits safely in the box that surrounds it.

Roberts has taken projects from inception to installation with only two meetings, as long as he was working in between the meetings to, as he puts it, “tweak, tweak, and tweak the design.”

Roberts also contacts the school district before starting a project. The superintendent needs to approve the design and can also donate money, supplies, and equipment. “It’s good to have the partnership with the principal and school district all the way through. That’s the most important part,” he says.

The Napa Valley Unified School District was very receptive to the playground proposal, as any school district would be, says Roberts. “They pitched in with a lot of money. They realize what a deal they’re getting. They also supplied the cement if we had to redo the box.” The school district also had or hired the augers and post-hole diggers used in installation. (Roberts and the Kiwanis members dug their own holes for the first playground, which is back-breaking work. The addition of the auger is well worth the money.) The school district can also provide employees to help with the installation. On a typical playground valued at $60,000, the school district pays an average of $20,000.

The committee should purchase the equipment through the school district, regardless of who is supplying the funds, in order to be covered by the school district’s insurance. It’s far better for the playground to be covered in case of accidents under the district’s policy than the smaller policy of the school or parent group.

The parent group is in charge of three things: fundraising, providing labor for installation, and providing food during installation. On the typical $60,000 playground, the parents raise an average of $10,000. For installation they had doughnuts and coffee in the mornings, lunch on Saturday, and plenty of cold drinks.

The Kiwanis club or other service organization can also provide funds for the playground. Roberts tapped other service and charity groups in his area to add to the Kiwanis funds. On the $60,000 playground model, Community Projects Inc. donates an average of $5,000 and the Kiwanians come up with $5,000. The volunteer labor provided by the Kiwanis club and the parents on installation days is valued easily at $20,000.

Roberts highly recommends being at the school Monday morning, after a playground installation. “It’s an amazing thing. I see on some of these events, the kids don’t even understand how they’re building their bodies with muscles and coordination,” he says. “They’re just playing away, no TV in sight. Playgrounds are important beyond the school day. They are a center for kids in summer and on weekends. There’s one in every neighborhood. My reward is to be there Monday when the kids just attack the new playground.”

Jim Roberts' Rules for Playground Projects

  1. Have someone coordinate the efforts. This should be someone from the volunteer organization or the parent group. The coordinator must keep things on track. The design and plan likely will need to be modified more than once to keep it within the price range while retaining key elements.

  2. Choose a good equipment company. Cheaper is not necessarily better. “I don’t think saving money when it involves children’s well-being makes much sense,” says Roberts. Make sure the equipment comes with a guarantee. Ask for and check referrals, including visiting a school with the equipment you want and talking to the people who installed it. (You'll find some terrific vendors in our products and services directory.)

  3. Get help. Some playground companies provide, for a cost, a supervisor for the installation. The salary of the supervisor varies, but he is worth every penny. “He is the one who meticulously oversees every aspect of the structure, beginning with plotting out the box so every post hole is dug exactly where it should be,” says Roberts. “He takes all of the worry out of the process.”

  4. Use everyone who wants to volunteer. “We have a lot of women who don’t have the back strength to install the pieces. They still help. They do a lot of the pre-assembly on Friday and Saturday.”

  5. Not all service clubs are equal. Roberts’ Kiwanis group is both large and active. You can get a list of service clubs from your local chamber of commerce, but you won’t know whether they are strong enough to tackle your project. Start by making phone calls, and consider working with more than one organization.

  6. Choose equipment kids will enjoy. Different slides are popular with older kids, while preschoolers and kindergartners enjoy overhead horizontal ladders. “The double swoosh slide that’s kind of steep and tall—but well-protected—was mobbed with kids,” says Roberts of his most recent installation. “The younger kids found the overhead events hard at first, but they all caught on really quickly and they loved them.”