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Can playgrounds save our souls?

My kids and I have started 'reviewing' Madison playgrounds. I'll be sharing our thoughts here. Stay tuned!

Thanks to many of you who pointed me to Sharon Gamson Danks' talks earlier this month in Madison. Sharon promotes 'living' schoolyards, explaining that the term immediately brings people on to her side. Who, after all, wants a dead schoolyard?

Dead schoolyards are really common, unfortunately. Picture concrete lots surrounded by chain-link fence, punctuated by a basketball hoop or tether-ball pole. I think a lot more about parks than schoolyards, since my kids are yet to start school. However, Sharon points out that public school districts are one of the largest landowners in almost every city and town in the country (and the world). 

Sharon began her talk at the Warner Park Community Center by showing a graphic representing the changes in 'roaming range' for a six-year-old over the past four generations. If you can remember your own roaming range as a kid, you can probably guess that it was larger for your parents, and multiply that by degrees for their parents. And, if you have kids today, you also know that the average six-year-old doesn't roam far. Kids are counted lucky if they have a back-yard where they can play without constant supervision. This is a strong argument for the need to bring nature into the schoolyard: Kids need to explore things other than standardized play equipment.

So schoolyards are crucially important, a place to start that gives 'every' kid access. But adults need green space, too. Do we really need research to tell us how important access to nature is for a healthy quality of life, for everyone?

Tenney Park: 37 acres in which to roam


Tenney Park is not only beautiful, it is arguably the park that started the citizen-movement to support parks, leaving a legacy today that we all enjoy. If you wander Tenney Park's shorelines and paths, you'll note it is a well-used urban green space. No, not a 'dead' schoolyard to rescue, but the perfect landscape in which to play.

According to the City of Madison Parks Division, the Tenney Park Lagoon Playground will be reconstructed within the next 5 years. When a playground is due for renovation, typically a meeting is held and neighbors that show up can provide some input. However, the choices are limited to the vendors the Parks Division uses and therefor result in very similar playgrounds. With the Friends of Reynolds Park, we pushed those limits a bit, but were frustrated we didn't get farther beyond the norm.

In order for a more innovative playground to be built, one that includes natural play elements, playable sculptures, or specially designed structures, the community at large will have to push the Parks Division to make an exception.

Two Exceptional Ideas I personally would push for at Tenney Park:

1. All-ages Social Swings
Blenheim Park, Australia. Photo found here.

2. Interactive solar powered 
water fountains and features
"Students rotate the small solar panel to watch the water pump turn on and off—creating a very effective and inexpensive renewable energy demonstration that children intuitively understand." Photo from Manassas Park Elementary School found here.

Sharon was hosted by the forward-thinking GROW Coalition, in partnership with the City of Madison Parks. I think this is a good sign. 

The talks were sponsored by Public Health Madison & Dane County. Happily, the large crowd included people from many city entities, including representatives from Madison Public Library, Madison Water Utility, Madison Metropolitan School District, churches and schools. 

I sat next to Stephanie Steigerwaldt, who has been instrumental in moving the Lapham Outdoor Classroom and Community Garden forward, and we whispered ideas back and forth excitedly. 

People in the room were thoughtful, motivated and pragmatic. I am hopeful that this is just a start, and that as a city we can do more than whisper our vision

My vision is for places where we know ourselves as a part of nature; places where we find inspiration alone and socially; places where we intuitively dial into the human ways of observing, exploring, and playing that encourage a gentleness of spirit we so need, young and old alike. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece on the integration of school properties into the community. Made me think of what is the case here. Will need to reflect more on that.