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September 25, 2012

The last time I wrote it was February. A whole lot of life, both exciting and mundane, happened in between then and now. In my last post our nursery school kids were sketching up ideas for their “dream playground.” We finished that playground. And then we built another. The playgrounds on our site were done in partnership with Playground Ideas. This NGO designs and builds play spaces that utilize low cost, local and recycled materials and are assembled with locally sourced labor and tools in order that they might be feasibly maintained and replicated. The site designs are also bespoke, speak to the particular nature and history of the community in which they are built, and contain elements that encourage open-ended play.

Play spaces that facilitate open-ended play are surprisingly rare. At some unknown date in recent history, the adults of the world convened and agreed upon what it is that children enjoy doing. This resulted in the canon of playground equipment: the slide, the see-saw, the swing, and the merry-go-round. A canonical playground can be a fun for a time, but in essence this norm of design prescribes play for children. The single activity nature of these structures communicates a fundamental distrust of children and their ability direct their own play; work that is nearly as important to their development as eating and sleeping. The slide is for climbing up and sliding down, not scrambling up backwards. The swing is for sitting, not standing or hanging. There is a “right” and a “wrong” way to play on these elements and deviation is not rewarded.

Before our build with Playground Ideas, we had a small, somewhat neglected playground on site. It contained the basics of the playground cannon, and as is standard for most playgrounds in Uganda, was constructed from fabricated steel, a material expensive to repair and often dangerous for kids. To improve this play space, we first carried out a series of discussions with our teachers and nursery students in which we brainstormed what their priorities for the space where and what kinds of play are unique to Uganda and the kids of St. Monica’s. This input was converted into a design scheme and local builders were relied upon for identifying cost effective, environmentally appropriate materials. We moved the existing elements to a shady area and augmented them to fit international safety standards. Then we added in elements that could facilitate multiple incarnations of child-directed play: a sand pit, a children’s village, a dancing stage, a clay molding table, and a dry riverbed run.

Over the course of eight dawn till dusk, volunteer packed crazy-days, the “dream playground” came to life…

More pictures of our nursery school playground before and after can be found here.

The second playground on our site has been designed specifically for our infant/toddler age children. Their mothers live on site and attend classes at the vocational centre during the day while the children are looked after by daycare staff.

Construction has completed, painting and final touches are currently underway, and pictures of the completed site will follow.

For the past few weeks, I’ve spent many of of my hours on the second construction site. Most days a scattering of kids from the St. Monica’s community pop in and out. Sometimes they observe the work and often they help out, but mostly they come to test-drive the new elements. One afternoon a seven-year-old kid wandered in to survey the work. The crew had just finished putting in place a tire maze and he quickly zeroed in on a set of three car tires, half buried in the ground at seemingly equal distances apart.

The kid quickly formulated his mission: he wanted to jump from one tire to another, all in a row. Uneasy of the distance, he called me over for backup. We tried the first jump a few times together. He leapt from the first tire and I caught him as he landed on the second. Confident he could now master this feat on his own, he chased me away and got back to work. The jump was attempted several times alone, but he couldn’t quite master balancing on the second tire after he landed. He always wobbled and had to step off. Then an idea struck him and he tried the puzzle backwards. Starting on the third tire, he leapt to the second and remained balanced atop on the first attempt. What happened? While at first glace the tires looked evenly spaced, the second tire was just slightly closer to the third than it was to the first. High off his success, he climbed back up on the third tire, sprung to the second, steadied his balance and hopped to the first. Then he swaggered, yes, swaggered, off the playground, head held high in triumph.

In this outwardly simple game of a kid fooling around on tires, a profound mass of learning transpired. He employed a systematic thought process as he charted out a goal and a plan to reach it, utilized spatial reasoning and mathematics in his distance calculations, and exercised critical thought in his problem solving. Perhaps more importantly, he was developing tools that IQ tests and school exams don’t measure: curiosity to embark on new challenges, creativity to formulate innovative strategies, grit* to get up and try again when he fell flat on his face, and the self-assurance that comes from mastery.

No one knows for certain what the world will look like in twenty years, when this seven-year-old has left the womb of the education system and is making his way on his own. In order to survive, he will certainly need the knowledge he is learning inside the classroom: literacy, mathematics, a grounding of history, and knowledge of the world around him. But in order to do his part to address the looming global challenges of over-population, global warming, food scarcity, and regional conflicts, it is vital that he cultivate the knack to be industrious, to think critically and collaborate with others. He’ll need a keen imagination to visualize what could be, courage to take risks, and a whole lot of grit to try again when he fails. This toolkit simply can’t be acquired through lectures and workbooks.  It is the kind of learning that happens only in make-believe games, schoolyard scuffles, and not without a few scraped knees. Protecting and improving the physical spaces where this occurs is one way to make certain that kids like this one can swagger through a new world with heads held high.


*no really, click that link.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2012 5:37 pm

    Very interesting. And I live the idea of asking the kids what THEY want! Kids are so much cooler than we give them credit for.

    Thanks for the update!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. September 25, 2012 7:44 pm

    LOVE this post! and so glad you’re writing 🙂

  3. Sally Jo permalink
    September 26, 2012 2:31 pm

    This is so fantastic, Elizabeth! The transformation is amazing. So wish we could see it in person. And the second playground is very needed.

  4. Gann Herman permalink
    September 26, 2012 8:56 pm

    Way to go Elizabeth and St Monica’s! Give Sr Pauline my love!

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