Monday, November 9, 2009

Making Places for Play

Last Thursday evening we had our first community conversation, Making Places for Play, about how to build community, engage families and inspire child-directed play through placemaking. We heard 3 fascinating presentations from local people who have responded to and strengthened their communities by creating playgrounds, parks and gardens – including plenty of details about their process. The conversation was so rich that I can’t possibly recap everything, so here’s a rundown of the essence of the presentations and discussion.

First up was Wendy Nilsson, chair of the Friends of Brown Street Park, and landscape architect and RISD instructor Markus Berger. They’ve worked to transform a former dog run in Providence into an eco-conscious park and a destination for community members of all ages from the diverse surrounding neighborhoods.
• Process started with asking the community – including families and children – what they wanted the space to sound, feel and be like to
• Found that what kids wanted was limited by their experiences, that they couldn't articulate what play could be
• Defined the space by how different groups interact and designed for “small interactions” that encourage spontaneous play instead of large playground equipment - incorporating things that kids can decide how to use, like cedar stumps they can roll around the park
• Created a common ground at the junction of 3 different neighborhoods, a place where kids meet new kids and begin to travel in packs – have developed a culture where kids can be spontaneous and play freely
• Took down internal fencing, which led to people watching other people’s kids and a language of “we” – the community is engaged and takes responsibility for the park

Then we heard from Stu Nunnery, director of the RI Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education (RICAPE), which coordinates the Children’s Garden Network. They work with schools, school districts and communities to inspire and support gardens and garden education programs – including with Jan Ragno, Assistant Principal of Ponaganset Middle School in North Scituate, a school that has an apple orchard on its campus.

• Children’s gardens are designed for children, by children – the intention is to create a space for kids that engages the whole community and reconnects them to nature
• Jan saw that kids didn’t know how to plant, dig, play in the dirt, how to nurture and wanted to create something that would unite the community and create ownership and investment
• Kids planned and designed an orchard and 400 community members helped with planting – and kept driving by to check on trees’ growth!
• Their 84 acres have developed from an apple orchard into a living campus with a parents’ garden and a universal design garden to include kids with special needs
• Every piece of their environment is an outdoor classroom and kids weed and care for it – “their play is an education – to dig, nurture, grow,” which helps them learn patience, love and respect

The final presentation was about the Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, which created an imaginative, open-ended new playground last year. We heard from Sarah Bernstein, who manages non-academic time at the school, and landscape designer Laurencia Strauss, who worked with the school community of students, parents, volunteers, teachers and staff to design and build the new play space – a former parking lot.
Laurencia was interested in “an open process of design – approaching designing with questions, not with all of the answers” and she worked with committees of kids and adults to get input from the whole school community
• Teachers facilitated writing exercises with students – first asked them what they wanted to have on the playground, then realized it was better to ask how they wanted to feel
• To help visualize the experience, both kids and committee members made models of their ideas
Laurencia talked about designing to facilitate experience, which resulted in spaces that flow into one another, equipment integrated into the larger landscape, native plants, both fixed and flexible spaces and play elements, and active and quiet zones that accommodate groups of different sizes
• Teaching staff had conversations and training about how to facilitate and foster open-ended play – wanted the playground to be a space where they could say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’

The questions and conversation that followed highlighted some of the common themes of the presentations. Each provided a revealing window into process and talked about the importance of reconnecting with and taking inspiration from childhood play experiences. All projects involved their communities to design and build – especially kids – from start to finish. This fostered a sense of ownership – “I built that!” As Wendy described, kids became like “stakeholders out there working the scene.”

The projects were in many ways about trust – gaining the trust of the community, of the city (to take down a fence at Brown Street), trusting kids by giving them more freedom to play – and the planners trusting themselves to try things, experiment, to trust that it would work out.

Some other comments:
• Stu talked about the importance of fostering and developing a sense of place – something that we lose when we’re detached from our environment and as society grows more fragmented
• “The outside is powerful – it can, should and has belonged to children – the inside belongs to grown-ups.”
• “It’s hard to create an environment where kids can just explore. Play starts when kids find new ways to use equipment.”
• Importance of risk taking, of learning limits – kids don’t learn that on protected playgrounds and “if they don’t learn to take risks, they won’t be able to protect themselves from danger.”

A powerful evening that gave all of us much to think about as we look forward to our next discussion, Building Community, on Wednesday, December 2 from 7-8:30 PM. Join the conversation!
These conversations were inspired by discussion topics on the Museum's listserv, “PlayWatch: Connecting the Community to Promote Children’s Play.” To read the PlayWatch archives or to join the list, visit

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