Pittsburgh coalition works to emphasize importance of playgrounds

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With the weather warming and summer vacation nearing, children are scampering to playgrounds to find friends and burn off energy — that is, if they have unscheduled time and a play space in the neighborhood.

Those are just two of the interests of the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative, a group of local organizations and individuals that have united to focus on play. Its issues include the intrinsic benefits of play and the effect on playground design of what some consider to be exaggerated concerns with risk. Although it is based in Pittsburgh, the collaborative hopes that interest in rethinking play and playgrounds will extend to organizations beyond the city and Allegheny County.

The collaborative formed last year and, to date, has hosted two of the events it has planned for 2014. Those two community conversations attracted more than 300 people, said Cara Ciminillo, operations director of Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.

The effort began when Marilyn Russell, curator of education for Carnegie Museum of Art, learned in the fall of 2012 that play was going to be one of the themes of the 2013 Carnegie International. The large contemporary exhibition included the unveiling of the Lozziwurm, a colorful Swiss playground sculpture, outside the Forbes Avenue entry of the museum.

Ms. Russell was familiar with the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children and thought it might be a good partner, particularly because it was “very deeply into play” and because of the quality of its professional development opportunities for teachers. She contacted PAEYC Executive Director Michelle Figlar and invited the organization to co-sponsor the Lozziwurm launch in April 2013.

As they began meeting, they “recognized the overlap and the commonality” of their organizational missions, Ms. Russell said. Other organizations joined, including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Let’s Move Pittsburgh, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Let Kids Play!, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, The Sprout Fund and the Studio for Spatial Practice.

The collaborative’s overall goal is to advance the importance of play in the lives of children in the Pittsburgh region.

The community conversation in February, held at the Carnegie Museum of Art in conjunction with the Carnegie International, focused on the value of risk in play but also discussed topics such as the importance of high quality design to make playgrounds compelling for adults and children and how playgrounds become important urban spaces.

Keynote speaker Susan Solomon, a historian and author of “American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space,” said that playgrounds of the past used to be vital and challenging. Projecting an image of a typical contemporary play structure, she described it as “a single hulking structure” with a layout that is “very directional, very pre-determined. It’s particularly disturbing that children don’t get to interact with one another.”

She attributes the shift in thinking about playgrounds to such factors as “concerns about liability, federal guidelines, an interest on academics that has diminished people’s interest in play, and a huge amount of parental anxiety on many fronts.”

Ms. Solomon acknowledged that there is “a difference between risk and hazard” and said she is sympathetic to parental concerns, citing thousands of emergency room visits annually resulting from playground accidents. “But 95 percent of them are very minor, a few stitches,” she said.

Behavioral science has shown what kids need to thrive, she said, and that includes the opportunity to fail, to keep trying, to problem solve and eventually to master things.

Another participant, Gabriela Burkhalter, guest curated The Playground Project, part of the 2013 Carnegie International, which looked at the history of playground design. Some of the pictures on her blog, Architektur für Kinder — Architecture for Children, www.architekturfuerkinder.ch — would traumatize many present-day parents, including an old photograph of children who have scaled a portico along an unkempt city street and are fighting on its narrow ledge.

A recent article in the Post-Gazette about a bronze playground sculpture that will be installed this year in Aspinwall Riverfront Park prompted some readers to ask whether it would become too hot to play on in the sun. The sponsoring Grable Foundation anticipated that and planned for mature trees in its landscaping.

But generations of children have dealt with hot seats — witness the use of flattened cardboard boxes to facilitate rides down the Blue Slide dug into the rolling landscape of Frick Park.

Other playground configurations, such as the castle-like wooden structures of Pleasant Kingdom in Pleasant Hills, invite exploration and discovery by offering passages where children can duck and hide.

A year after the Lozziwurm launch, the collaborative organized an “Ultimate Play Day” that was held in April in Oakland and is planned to be an annual event. “The goal of this event is to raise awareness about the importance of play in children’s social, emotional, academic and physical health and development,” Ms. Ciminillo said. The collaborative also will teach a course on play in the University of Pittsburgh early childhood program in the fall.

“We are rethinking children’s experiences,” Ms. Ciminillo said, “how we got to a place where play is seen as an innovative idea. It is the natural state of children. Play is not just physical. It’s mental, emotional, spiritual. It is the job of children, it’s the way they learn.

“This supports our own organizational mission in some way, but there is a lot more power if all of the organizations are talking about it.”

For information: www.paeyc.org/playful-pittsburgh-collaborative.





Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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