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For all ages, a day to frolic

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / October 23, 2011

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Not long ago in Shirley, a few hundred people gathered in the town’s historic center to play. Children and grown-ups ran through stonewall-lined fields and wooded trails in a morning race. Then some of them danced, jumped rope, tossed bean bags, played football, and scrambled through an obstacle course.

Shirley takes play very seriously. This year, the town of 7,200 was the only community in Massachusetts recognized by the national group KaBOOM! as a “Playful City USA.’’ This was the fifth year in a row Shirley has received the award, and this year the town also won a $20,000 grant to help build a new playground at the Lura A. White Elementary School. The town has an official Play Board and members oversee the annual Day of Play that took place earlier this month.

“Shirley’s communal spirit towards the importance of play is tremendous,’’ said Mike Vietti, KaBOOM!’s communications manager. “It’s not something we’re seeing in a lot of different communities across the country. Shirley just gets it. They understand that play is important to children.’’

While the $20,000 would help create the new school playground, it was the old one, with its metal swings and other equipment no longer considered safe, where Shirley’s new commitment to play began in 2007. A group of kindergarten mothers went to the elementary school to look around.

“It was terrible,’’ said Susan Heinz, chairwoman of the Play Board of Shirley. “It was a sandbox with equipment from years ago. Some of the equipment was out of code. Our swings were way out of code. Some of our climbing apparatus was just not safe at all. We had no slides.’’

One of the school administrators passed along the KaBOOM! grant application and the parents went to work. They soon learned Shirley was designated one of the first 19 Playful Cities USA and they received $5,000 to organize the town’s first Day of Play. “It was like the coolest thing ever,’’ Heinz said.

Then the mothers decided to rebuild the playground. They raised $25,000 - including $10,000 from Anna and Joseph Molinari, grandparents of two students - and applied for another KaBOOM! grant. This August, they learned they would receive $20,000. Local businesses agreed to donate services - a landscaper pulled out the old equipment, another landscaper jack-hammered the cement away, a fencing company provided free labor - and people in town donated benches.

“It’s so heartwarming,’’ said Dina Samfield, a member of the Play Board. “I watched as the excavator was tearing up the asphalt and I literally started to cry. It just means that much to me and the parents in the community. We’re going to have a playground that the kids deserve.’’

The playground’s sand will be replaced with softer wood mulch. New swinging and climbing structures will be installed. Although the elementary school is scheduled to move to neighboring Ayer in the next five years, as part of a new regional school district, the playground will remain.

The amount of time children spend in free play has declined over the past 50 years, as children spend more time in scheduled activities and doing homework. The trend is troubling because children learn how to control their emotions, solve problems, make decisions and follow rules while they play, says Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College.

“We’ve sort of turned childhood into a period of résumé-building, rather than a period of joyful play and discovery,” he said.

In a study published this year in the American Journal of Play, Gray argued that the decline of free play - which doesn’t include adult-directed activities like organized sports - is related to the increase in anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems among children and teenagers.

Shirley isn’t loaded with playgrounds, but residents have been working to improve the existing spaces. Earlier this year, volunteers, including local businesses, renovated the wooden “Mystical Maze Playground’’ at Benjamin Hill Park.

The pressure-treated wooden structure was sanded down, repainted, and “brought back to life,’’ Heinz said. The park, a former ski area that closed in the 1970s, has been turned into a town recreation area, with a swimming pool and sledding hill.

“Even though we have very little, we still show that we’re trying to maintain what we have,’’ Heinz said.

This year, 421 people signed up for the annual Holdenwood Trail Run that kicks off the Day of Play. Then some of them stayed around to play, watching a demonstration of police dogs, dancing, and getting their faces painted. One year, the Day of Play featured sumo wrestling.

KaBOOM! leaders were impressed by how many people get involved in the town’s Day of Play.

“It’s turned into an entire citywide event,’’ Vietti said. “The overall community participation is off the charts.’’

Next, Shirley volunteers are hoping to make it easier for children and adults to walk to the new playground at the elementary school.

Like many suburbs, Shirley doesn’t have many sidewalks. The town is bisected by railroad tracks. The volunteers plan to get an engineering assessment with recommendations of ways to make the walking routes safer.

“Anything we can do to improve the health of the community is going to be good for everybody,’’ Samfield said.

▸The town’s official Play Board has seven members
▸At the annual Day of Play, children (and some adults) jump rope, dance, run, and take part in a scavenger hunt
▸The town was the only community in Massachusetts named a “Playful City USA” in 2011
▸This month, the town is building a new playground at the Lura A. White Elementary School