Pushing for play: The local mom behind an effort to bring a playground to Walker Elementary

Christa Bennett and her daughter Emma. Christa Bennett and her daughter Emma.

By Alexis Gravely

Christa Bennett is no stranger to community advocacy. 

After earning a master’s degree from King’s College London in international relations with a focus on human rights, she directed an organization focused on ending the genocide in Sudan. She’s worked on community development projects in Rwanda and lobbied the British Parliament. Since moving to the area in 2012, Bennett has spearheaded two campaigns pushing for policy changes in Charlottesville City Schools: to stop weighing students in gym class, and to end the practice of punishing children by taking away their recess. 

Ultimately, both campaigns were a success. Parents can now opt out their students and students can opt themselves out of being weighed at school, and the city schools’ updated wellness policy states that the division “will not reduce or eliminate time for recess as a punishment.”

Now, the Charlottesville mom (her daughters, ages 6 and 11, attend city schools) is leading a new charge—to build a playground at Walker Upper Elementary School.

“This is really about human rights on a smaller scale,” Bennett says. “The access to places where we can move our bodies and do so freely and safely is really important. There are 700 students at the school and one basketball court isn’t enough.”

Bennett says that after researching child development, she’s learned how important opportunities for free play are for children, to support their brain development. Her husband is a neuroscientist, and they’ve discussed how what children are doing in their younger years impacts the rest of their lives.

“Our brains can change some as we get older, but not as much as it will change when you’re 10, 11, or 12—the ages of the children who go to Walker,” Bennett says.

While students have access to a soccer field and basketball court, Bennett says the lack of playground equipment excludes kids who are shyer or aren’t interested in playing team sports. Her own daughter often does homework during recess time because she doesn’t have anything else to do.

Bennett wanted to find a solution. She decided to use her experience in grant writing and fundraising to help raise $90,000 to build a playground by next year. When she learned that no one from the city schools had applied for the UVA Health System’s Community Health Grant, she started working on an application. Bennett wrote two additional grant applications for the project, and is expecting to hear the results this month. 

If all goes well, her next step is to take her proposal to the school board and City Council.

The initiative, called “A Playground at Walker,” already has the support of Walker Principal Adam Hastings and Kim Powell, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, if funding can be secured. Walker has not had a play structure since it was converted to an upper elementary school, the district says, though interest in adding a playground has grown in recent years. In the long term, the division is planning to convert Walker to a citywide public preschool, and have fifth graders stay at their neighborhood elementary schools while sixth graders attend Buford Middle School. 

The playground project has been a year in the making, and Bennett’s been working constantly behind the scenes to make her vision a reality. From collaborating with the Walker PTO to meeting with the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation department to developing initial designs with local architects, she has been involved in all facets of the process.

“It’s like this part-time job that I have,” Bennett laughs. But she’s okay with that. “This is something I can do, so I’m willing to give my time.”

The daughter of a pastor, Bennett says she is motivated by the moral commitment to justice that her faith instilled in her, and she defines justice as “everyone having what they need.” The Walker project is just another way to make that happen.

“We need to show up for people,” Bennett says. “Justice is a community event.”

Bennett is working with the PTO to distribute surveys to parents and students, and she’s planning to hold community work days when construction begins. She says the group may also start a GoFundMe campaign for people who want to donate money.

Some local citizens have criticized the initiative, noting that it shouldn’t be Bennett’s responsibility to crowdsource funding for a playground at a public school. Bennett agrees that it should be done by the City Council and the school board, but she also believes the kids at Walker deserve to have a playground—and her efforts can make that happen a lot sooner.

“My intention for this project is for it to be a both/and situation—where I’m raising questions about why this hasn’t happened so far and getting a playground built in 2020,” Bennett says.

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Well I think the city may have blown their wad on the skatepark…
Forget about the fact that many city kids don’t get breakfast in the morning or internet access at home… We need a playground!