The new Church Hill playground is part of a larger campaign to revitalize the city’s schools

With the flash of a few oversized scissors and a round of applause, a new playground in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood officially opened on Thursday.

At the playground located outside Henry L. Marsh III Elementary School, students and members of the public can now find a vast jungle of colorful monkey bars, numerous slides, and several non-mechanized rides.

Skyler Hayden, a third-grade student at the school, was among the first children to take advantage of the new facilities: he and his brother raced around the carousel as soon as the ceremonial ribbon was cut.

He said the new play structures are a huge improvement.

“I’ve never seen a playground like this,” Hayden said. “This one is better compared to other playgrounds.”

Construction of this site is part of the city’s plan to build three new schools, including Henry L. Marsh III Elementary, which was previously known as George Mason Elementary. The project was funded by a 1.5% meal tax increase that was approved by City Council in 2018. According to Mayor Levar Stoney’s press secretary, Jim Nolan, the playground is the last project these funds will be used for, as the three schools have been built.

The city spent over $143 million to build the three new schools, including Marsh Elementary, Cardinal Elementary School, formerly known as ESH Greene, and the former Elkhardt-Thompson Middle, which is now River City Middle School.

According to Cheryl Burke, who represents Marsh on the Richmond School Board, these three schools were chosen because their facilities were among the most outdated in the district. Prior to his replacement, George Mason had not been updated since 1992, according to Weekly style, and most of the structure was built about 70 years ago. Burke said when she visited the old George Mason campus at the start of her first term in 2017, the need for new facilities was already evident.

“My heart was broken. So when it came time to [choose] what schools we’re going to build, I pushed, I prayed, and here we are,” Burke said.

Stoney attended the groundbreaking ceremony and marked the occasion by riding down one of the playground’s newly constructed slides. He said the playground’s completion is a significant milestone for the city.

“Public schools are community assets, and the kids in this neighborhood deserve a safe and fun playground,” Stoney said.

Education experts say “play” is an important part of children’s development.

The region has been gentrified since the 1990s, creating a socio-economic divide in the neighborhood. Several public parks concentrated in the southern part of Church Hill, less than a mile from the school. Access to green space is tied to Virginia’s history of segregation and Jim Crow, according to Kathy Hudson, CEO of Kaboom, a nonprofit that helps communities build playgrounds and conducts research about the importance of play in children’s development.

“Segregation was fundamentally in our public spaces. So when this country was separated, our public spaces were separated in terms of where black people could shop, where they could eat, where they could drink water,” Hudson said. “Decades ago, the country was built around who had access to what facilities and who didn’t. And there have been intentional investments along the way in … white communities, as opposed to intentional divestment in communities of color.

According to a 2008 study by the National Library of Medicine, between 70 and 80 percent of children from racial minority groups in the United States do not have access to recreational facilities like parks or playgrounds. Meanwhile, 38% of white children also do not have easy access to these resources.

“The physical activity and social stimulation that play can provide is an essential part of who we become,” Hudson said.

Although several hundred children under the age of 10 live in the northern part of Church Hill, Data analyzed by VPM News shows that the highest concentrations of children in the inner city live around Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods.

Mayor Stoney said he hopes to improve conditions in these low-income neighborhoods in the near future.

“We need to invest in other places in Southside, like we are doing with George Wythe High School, and other schools that we have seen over the last decade with city government investment,” said Stoney said.

Harold B. McConnell