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Ideas in Action: Vandalism Prevention? For Plymouth, It’s All Fun and Games!

By Claudia Hoffacker

The school bell rang, and several children ran out to the playground for the after-school program. Much to their dismay, they discovered a mess. Trash was everywhere, swings were broken, and there was ugly spray paint all over the wooden fort.

It was a disturbing scene. Fortunately, it was only a simulation of a park that was struck by vandalism. It’s all part of a game—the Parks & WrecTM Vandalism Prevention Program— that Plymouth staff members introduced in 2011 to kids throughout the Wayzata and Robbinsdale school districts, which also serve Plymouth residents.

Sara Cwayna, Plymouth public safety education specialistSara Cwayna (pictured at left), Plymouth public safety education specialist, recently played the game with about a dozen kids in grades 3-6 in the Home Base After-School Program at Sunset Elementary School. Community Relations Officer Jim Long and Forestry Technician Lara Newberger facilitated the game, along with Cwayna. The purpose of the game is to teach kids the important role they play in keeping their community safe and clean. They learn what they can do if they see something wrong—like litter and vandalism—in the park or anywhere else. They also learn about the cost of cleaning up and repairing damage caused by vandalism.

“I just want them to take ownership and realize this is our park, and we need to take care of it,” Cwayna says.

“As part of the game, kids get to see there is a cost involved,” adds Long. “We’ll talk to them about the cost of hiring to clean up, and sometimes they come up with clever ideas like someone getting volunteers to clean up or doing it themselves.”

Playing the game
The game starts with a partially built park (using an 8-by-5-foot rug designed as a park with toy playground equipment), and the grounds are a mess, as described earlier. But the good news is that the city has just received a $2,500 donation for the park. Plymouth Community Relations Officer Jim Long asks students questions during a game of Parks & Wrec.The players get to decide how to use that money, and they also have the responsibility of managing the upkeep of the park with a $2,000 monthly budget.

Each player receives either an equipment price list, a maintenance price list, or a verdict list. They are then challenged to decide what to fix, what to buy, and how to design the park. Once the park is set up, the facilitators introduce the concept of a budget and explain where the money comes from—property taxes and fees.

Throughout the game, the players encounter more incidents of vandalism and other crimes, and they have to decide what to do. For example, during the recent game at Sunset Elementary, the jungle gym caught on fire. After a brief lesson about arson, the kids were able to “catch the vandal.”

“What do you think his punishment should be?” Long asked the kids.

“Have him mow the park as punishment,” one of the players suggested. Good idea!

“What do you do if you see someone doing something to harm your park?” Long asked next.

The kids yelled out several answers, including call 911, tell your parents, and call the Parks Department. Long, Cwayna, and Newberger affirmed those answers.

Coming up with solutions
Next, the kids had to decide how to replace that jungle gym that was destroyed by fire. They considered adding a skateboard ramp, but decided against it after seeing the $500 price tag. After a little deliberation, they settled on adding a volleyball net for $150 and a basketball hoop for $250.

Later, after paying the monthly bills, they had $890 left, so they decided to buy a $50 grill and a $400 ladder-climb and walkway set. At the end of the game, the facilitators asked the kids several questions to reinforce the lessons they had learned (see the sidebar at right).

After they wrapped up the game, the lessons really seemed to sink in for Spencer, a fourth-grader who said he learned that “there’s graffiti and you have to get that away, and there’s glass and garbage and you have to clean that up, and you can add new equipment.”

It’s important to clean up the park “because if you don’t, no one will want to go to the park because it will just be a big pile of junk,” Spencer added.

History of the game
Cwayna actually created the Parks & WrecTM game in 1989 while working with another city police department. “My job was to go into middle schools and talk about vandalism,” Cwayna explains. “I thought, ‘What a hard audience! How will I ever do this?’ I realized I just had to make it real to them. And this game works. I don’t think it’s a brilliant idea, but I just think it helps them see it and they’re able to relate to it.”

Cwayna designed the park rug withKids at a Sunset Elementary School after-school program play the Parks & Wrec vandalism prevention game. an online program, and she hired a professional woodworker to make all the playground equipment and other parts. When she left that job and came to Plymouth, she put the game away and it sat in storage for more than 20 years.

But in 2010, Plymouth experienced a spree of park vandalism that caused more than $200,000 worth of damage. That prompted Cwayna to bring the game back to life.

Since then, it’s been a big hit with the kids, and the educational aspect also seems to be working.

“I played with stuff like this when I was a kid, but today kids are usually playing games on the computer,” Long says. “Before we brought it to the kids, I wondered if it wasn’t high-tech enough, but they really love it because this is actually something they can touch and move around.”

More than just fun
Pam Cicharz, instructor at the Sunset Elementary after-school program, agrees. “The kids didn’t really want to play it the first time they brought it here,” she says. “But then they really got into it and they loved it.”

But it was more than just fun, she adds. “They were surprised about how much money it costs to fix things. They take for granted that the park is there for them, and they don’t think about what goes on to keep it there. So, they’ve really learned a lot from this!”

Long says it’s hard to measure whether this type of educational initiative actually makes a difference in reducing crime, but he knows it’s helping kids to “think about these things a little differently.”

How does he know that? Because, Long says, he has heard kids tell their friends not to litter or do other things that would hurt parks in the community. “It’s great to hear kids say, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t do that because this is our park.’”

Claudia Hoffacker is web content and publications manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: choffacker@lmc.org or (651) 215-4032.

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