My View – Why the soft playroom is needed

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Being a parent of a preschooler or toddler in Alexandria means having to outsource your childs recreation. Because recreational opportunities for our children in the city are so sparse, we are forced to commute to Arlington and Fairfax counties where we pay a premium for the privilege of signing up our children for sports, arts and other classes. Our only other alternative is to enroll our children in classes with private instructors that cost hundreds of dollars.

More importantly, there is no indoor recreation area dedicated to the needs of the under-6 set in Alexandria. As the mother of active preschoolers, my wife joined a volunteer parents group earlier this year to approach the city about building a soft playroom similar to the one at the constantly booked at Lee District RECenter in Fairfax County.

A soft playroom is filled with age-appropriate gymnastic equipment that encourages young children to tumble, climb, and build. It can be used to teach organized classes, for free play, and is wildly popular as a destination for private parties. The Lee District soft playroom, built in a converted racquetball court about 13 years ago, is a haven for wee ones, who delight in crawling through tunnels, diving into the ball pit, and scaling hills made of soft gymnastic equipment. It is booked months in advance for parties and open-play sessions. It is open to Alexandria city residents, who pay a surcharge to use it.

Our idea was simple: We would raise the money for the equipment from private sources and professional architects would volunteer a design that would make Alexandrias soft playroom the pride of Northern Virginia. All we needed from the city was space.

After carefully evaluating the scarce options in the city, staff proposed converting one of the under-utilized racquetball courts at Chinquapin Park Recreation Center. The proposal makes sense. Not only is the center centrally-located, we have been told that projections indicate that a soft playroom would generate more than twice as much revenue annually as the existing three racquetball courts currently do combined.

The soft playroom would deliver much-needed recreational opportunities to a grossly undeserved age group (not to mention their parents) and makes economic sense. We are disappointed that a few racquetball players are trying to block the Chinquapin location. While we admire their devotion to their sport, the facts dont support their position.

Nationally, participation in racquetball peaked in popularity in the late 1970s. U.S. Census Bureau data demonstrates that it fell from the 25th most popular participant sport in 1992 (behind salt-water fishing and target shooting) to the 30th in 1998 (trailing badminton and table tennis). In 2004, a combined 2.5 million people nationwide played racquetball and squash, according to the National Safety Council. By comparison, twice as many people actively participate in archery that year.

Use of the racquetball courts at Chinquapin reflect this trend locally. According to city data, Court 1 at Chinquapin was used only 31.03 percent of its available hours from July 1, 2005-June 30, 2006. That statistic includes reservations and walk-ins as well as use of the court for other sports, including wallyball.

Courts 2 and 3 were in use only 41.57 percent and 27.4 percent, respectively of their available hours, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. The current year to date has been no better. From July 1, 2006 until today, Court 1 has been used 27.15 percent of its available hours; Court 2 has been in use for 45.38 percent of its available hours, and Court 3 has been used 27.47 percent of the time.

It is rare that all three courts are in use at once; during the day, when young children are in most need of recreational opportunities, its common to find all three courts empty. Meanwhile, one only has to visit the Lee District RECenter on a cold or rainy day to witness the overwhelming popularity of that space.

The racquetball players are quick to say that parents should simply pay to take their children to privately-owned play spaces such as Gymboree. This argument, made by people who dont want to pay to join one of the dozens of health clubs in the area that offer racquetball, is disingenuous on several levels.

First, there is precious little free play time at these otherwise fabulous venues, and children often have to be enrolled in classes in order to participate.

Second, the cost of such a spontaneous visit is many multiples of admission to a city-owned facility. As taxpayers, we are entitled to the same low-cost recreational options for our children as the racquetball players, who will still have two courts to use at Chinquapin once the playroom is built in addition to a court at Cora Kelly Recreation Center that is free.

Some have suggested an alternative location, which will be discussed at a May 2 meeting at Chinquapin that begins at 7 p.m. Two alternative locations that have been preliminarily identified that could take years to complete. Additionally, no money exists for those renovations. The city staff had good reason to select Chinquapin as the optimal location in the first place, and their recommendation shouldnt be rejected in haste.

Our childrens needs are as important as devotees of a sport that has few participants. As the city weighs its response to these competing constituencies, we believe it would be a grave error to favor a vocal minority. The fact is, small children will make far more use of a soft playroom at Chinquapin on a daily and hourly basis and their parents, voters all, will be grateful for this.

Ryan J. Donmoyer is a resident of Alexandria and the father of two girls, 4 and 2.

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