Parents met by changes to Watertown summer playground program

·4 min read

Jul. 14—WATERTOWN — A small group of children sat at a picnic table at the North Hamilton playground playing the board game Sorry on a pleasant summer afternoon earlier this week.

"Is it my turn?" asked 6-year-old Bryson VanPatten.

A few minutes later, the little boy got bored and joined a dodgeball game a short distance away.

It's that time again for making Boondoggle projects, playing kickball and sitting down for a game of Sorry at the city's summer playground program.

This summer, playgrounds are at the North Elementary School, Thompson Park, North Hamilton and alternate sites at Emerson Place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and at Academy Street on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The staffed playgrounds are open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays until Aug. 12.

Two playground attendants are on duty at each playground, which includes playground equipment, a picnic table, porta-potty and access to water.

It's the second summer that the playground program is back after an interruption caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But there are some changes that the city Parks and Recreation Department has implemented, which has caused some confusion.

Recently, parent Krystin LaBarge expressed some concerns and wanted some clarification about the program.

"It's a wonderful resource for our community and I'm happy to see it's happening, albeit with quite a few changes from the rec program in the past," she said.

She'd like to see the parks department do a better job to let the public know that the program is available.

Ms. LaBarge also thinks that more detailed information should be provided to parents.

She also mentioned some confusion about its rules and policies, especially regarding whether parents need to attend the playgrounds with their children.

Scott M. Weller, parks and recreation superintendent, said it's a drop in program that has to follow state Department of Health regulations.

If a child normally frequents the neighborhood playground on their own without a parent, they don't have to have an adult with them and they are welcome to stay as long as they'd like, he said.

If the child is too young to visit on their own, they need to be accompanied by a parent, he said.

Before COVID-19, parents were required to register their child during their first visit.

Back then, Community Action Planning Council of Jefferson County provided lunch at all of the playgrounds.

Because of "lingering effects of COVID," the lunches aren't offered this summer, Mr. Weller said.

He hopes to bring them back and have at least two Department of Health playgrounds next summer.

So far, 139 children have attended the playgrounds over the first eight days this summer, said Natalie Vallance, who's heading them this summer.

On some days, only a handful of children show up at a playground. On Wednesday, North Hamilton had 13.

Evan J. Burnett, 18, a playground attendant at North Hamilton, said one child was waiting at 9:30 a.m. for the playground to open on a recent day.

He and co-worker, playground attendant Jocelyn St. Joseph, 15, enjoy their jobs. The same kids show up almost every day.

They have a big blue duffel bag of equipment, games and activities that they can use to keep the children active.

"Actually, it's pretty fun," he said.

Mr. Weller said his department is doing what it can to get the word out, with social media, press releases and emails.

Ms. LaBarge, whose 9-year-old son, Ashton, attends the playground at the North Elementary School, hopes that parks and recreation keeps the information more up to date and explains the program better.

"It's a valuable program," she said, adding it helps children develop.

She's just worried if not enough kids participate, the city will eliminate the program.

"I want to see this program be a success," she said.

Taylor Playground

The new Taylor playground installation is complete and is now open behind the Massey Street fire station.

The public can access the new playground, which consists of some swings, a slide and a few climbing stations, from South Meadow Stree.

The Taylor playground is the latest to be upgraded in recent years. Other recent upgrades include Academy Street, North Hamilton, North Star and Thompson Park.