The 5-foot shovel wobbled in Lisa Flint's hands. Lisa, a 9-year-old who attends Oakview Elementary School in Fairfax County, heaved a few more shovels of soggy cement before she paused for a breather.
"I want to help my school build a playground," Lisa explained as she stood in the drizzle on a cool fall evening. Behind her, a couple of metal jungle gyms and a few horizontal bars were the only pieces of play equipment framing the school building.
This Sunday, when the final product is officially dedicated, visitors to Oakview Elementary will find a veritable wonderland on the playground. Tire nets, circular slides, pyramid tree-houses, serpentine play tunnels and wooden platforms dot the acre behind the school.
More than 200 parents and children recently spent four days at the school, erecting and assembling the equipment. But most of the "real" work took place before that, when the same parents spent a year planning, phoning for help and soliciting funds and materials for the playground.
It is, the parents say, a dream come to construction.
"There were 1,100 kids who virtually had no playground -- only a blacktop and a couple of sets of bars," said Linda Bestimt. "You could visit the school at one of its lunch hours and see a couple of hundred kids just standing laguidly around. We wanted to do something for the school, and this seemed like the ideal project."
In a time when families are criticized for lack of involvement in school activities, the playground was built without public funds. Told there was no money available last October, Bestimt and her group decided to proceed anyway. An architect was hired and for almost a year, parents and students gathered materials, earned more than $13,000 through a variety of fund-raisers, recruited workers and called, they said, thousands of businesses in the area, looking for everything from damaged concrete pipes to 600-pound tractor tires.
At times, Bestimt said, the group wondered if parents and kids -- including many who had never built more than a house of cards -- could take a blacktop playground and transform it into a place where a child could exercise his imagination as well as his body.
Last week, when it came time to assemble the playground equipment, they knew they could do it.
"It's truly fantastic," said parent Martha Hildreth, between shoveling cement and trampling dirt. "Twenty-four hours ago there was nothing here; today you see what can happen when a group of people organize and decide to do something."
Most of the parents credit Bob Leathers, the project's architect, as the real force behind the playground. Last week, Leathers was all over the playground, helping parents put up a tire net here, a treehouse there.
Leathers, of Ithaca, N.Y., has designed 45 playgrounds the past 10 years. He was chosen for the Oakview project because he agreed to help the parents build most of the equipment, and because of his history of "building" playgrounds, rather than erecting pre-fab equipment. He was paid about $2,000 for his work on the Oakview playground.
"It's a continuous play and learning experience," Leathers said in explaining the free-form design of the Oakview playground. "One hundred and fifty children can jump around simultaneously on the equipment and let their imaginations run wild. It can be a fort, a steering wheel or a space ship -- whatever the child wants."
Leathers met with parents and kids several times before last week's culminating activities, advising them on how to raise money and secure materials. When he arrived to help erect the equipment, everything was set and his enthusiasm was high.
"It's exhausting," Leathers gasped as he ran about, inspecting poles for stability, "but I'm addicted to playground building. You don't often get to feel the high point in a community's life -- and this is definitely one of them."