BY DANIEL JOST
Today, young children spend much of their time in schools and child-care centers, but these places rarely offer rich outdoor environments for unstructured play. That’s a problem, says Sharon Easterling, the executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. Such play is not just a leisure activity. It’s how children learn. “Good early-
childhood education is really hands-on, play-based learning,” she says.
Over the past year, the association and the Community Design Collaborative in Philadelphia have partnered to bring attention to the important role that play—and thoughtfully designed play environments—can have on children’s intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development. As part of an initiative called Infill Philadelphia: Play Space, they created an exhibit, brought in speakers, hosted a charrette, and sponsored a design competition.
Their Play Space Design Competition, funded by the William Penn Foundation, sought ideas for outdoor play and learning environments on three sites in low-income neighborhoods with little park space. Each site was associated with a different type of facility that might serve young children—a school, a recreation center, and a library.
The competition was unorthodox in that it highly recommended that design teams include an educator or child-care professional, says Alexa Bosse, Associate ASLA, the design collaborative’s program associate at the time. Tavis Dockwiller, ASLA, a founding principal of Viridian Landscape Studio, says working with Tamara Clark from the Parent–Infant Center had a major influence on her team’s winning design. “She talked to us about how little kids need to manipulate everything,” Dockwiller says. The team, which was led jointly by Viridian, Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, and Meliora Environmental Design, proposed an art studio where kids could paint and draw on slate, chutes that kids could dump water through, and a nature play area for digging.
Another winning team, led by Julie Bush, ASLA, of Ground Reconsidered Landscape Architecture, didn’t just collaborate with an educator but with a whole class of children from Friends Select School. “The second-graders who were on our team all visited the site with us, and each did their own design,” Bush says. “They all tried to describe their design as if they were telling a story.” The exercise, combined with the site’s location next to a library, inspired an interactive play sculpture that resembles a narrative structure. The sculpture has an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Each part allows children to interact with it by crawling, hanging, climbing, or sliding.
Meghan Talarowski, Associate ASLA, of Studio Ludo and Charles Miller of Roofmeadow led the third winning team. Talarowski recently returned from studying the ways physical activity is associated with risky play environments in London and was inspired to explore similar features within the more restrictive regulatory environment of the United States. Miller, whose firm specializes in green roofs, brought that expertise to repurposing the concrete paving that covered the site of the Waterloo Recreation Center, the conditions of which are much like those of a roof. There’s no reason to spend money on removing pavement, he says. Instead, it can serve as a “useful foundation for a new hydrology.” Water flows as it might in a shallow groundwater system, resurfacing to create a brook.
It’s unclear if any of these designs will be built. But just a few weeks before the competition’s winners were announced, Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, stated plans for a $300 million bond issue for improving parks, recreation centers, and libraries. Easterling hopes that discussions will lead to more engaging play environments—and more unstructured play opportunities generally. “We’re really at the beginning of a larger movement that’s not only trying to reclaim space for play but trying to reclaim childhood for kids,” she says.