evaluation of natural playground renovation
client: Evergreen Learning Grounds
With funding from the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation, Evergreen facilitated substantial renovations of the outdoor kindergarten play yards at two elementary schools in the Waterloo Regional District. These interventions were designed to improve the quality and diversity of the outdoor play opportunities for these young children, including supporting active play, loose parts play, and nature engagement.
thrive design consulting designed and implemented a multi-tool research protocol to assess both the pre- and post-renovation playspaces, and to examine the impacts of these substantial environmental changes on both play opportunities and children's play behaviour. Research tools included an outdoor play environment audit, staff 'walkalong' interviews, and intensive behaviour pattern mapping involving systematic observations of children's in-situ play behaviours.
Analyses performed by thrive provided critical finds for Evergreen and the study schools. Research results linked renovations of the play environments to changes in play opportunities available to children, child-to-child interactions, active play behaviours, engagement with loose parts, support for outdoor learning, and child and staff attitudes towards nature and natural playspaces.
participatory design of natural school play yard
client: public elementary school / London, Ontario
Over the course of two years, we developed and conducted a participatory design / build project with a high-needs elementary school in London, Ontario to help them transform a portion of their schoolyard into a natural play and learning space.
A large potion of the original yard was a barren, asphalt expanse adjacent to a busy arterial road; this area had been deemed off-limits to students after several cars had crashed through the school fence. The objective of the project was to renovate the space to return this area to the students as a safe outdoor space, and to integrate opportunities for natural play and learning.
We designed a comprehensive program to directly involve the schools' student population in design and building of the new play garden. We implemented a 4-month program with senior students, integrated with their curriculum, which positioned the youth as co-researchers and co-designers. Organized in 'design firms', groups of students worked through numerous research exercises to understand both the site conditions, and the needs and wishes of all student and staff users. Our program guided students through site evaluations, mapping of site amenities and challenges, interviews with staff, focus groups with other students, and on-site behavioural observations. This research would inform their plans for redesigning the school yard.
The program then provided training to students in both advanced design processes as well as strategies for designing natural play spaces. we helped students develop concept drawings, then detailed plans and models for the space. Each group presented their designs, outlining how it reflected the needs of all students and staff, and how it provided opportunities for natural play and learning. Students even had to develop cost estimates for their designs, and justify their renovation budget.
We then facilitated discussions to synthesize ideas from all designs to create a master plan, which was brought to the school community for approval.
Students from the school participated in all stages of the construction, including preparing planting beds, planting trees, and spreading mulch. We then facilitated a Community Build Day, inviting the entire school community to join in the final planting, and organized students and community members to water and care for the garden.
Post-renovation discussions and surveys with students were also conducted, revealing that the new play garden has become a favourite play place for many students, and for the wider community. The school continues to evolve the garden on their own, and students play an active role in caring for the space.
youth engagement for neighbourhood planning
client: Rolston Neighbourhood Action Group / Hamilton, Ontario
The impetus for the Rolston Neighbourhood Urban Forest redevelopment project actually stemmed from a 2013 youth-engagement ‘Photovoice’ initiative in the community designed to inform the community’s Neighbourhood Action Strategy (NAS). Through the Photovoice project local youth identified neighbourhood parks as an important asset, but also that the local urban forest park was generally considered by neighbourhood children to be unsafe. The Rolston Neighbourhood Action Strategy (NAS) agreed to dedicate resources to improving conditions in the park, and engaged a consulting team to create a plan for redevelopment, with a particular focus on the urban forest area. The NAS group and community stakeholders were committed to continued engagement with neighbourhood youth to help understand current barriers to use and to help envision changes that would meet the needs and interests of community children. Thrive design consulting was engaged to develop and deliver a series of workshops to engage neighbourhood youth around redevelopment of the park.
Over the course of 4 weeks, we facilitated youth engagement workshops with four of the Rolston neighbourhood elementary schools. The workshops were designed to meet several objectives: to understand how the park is currently being used or experienced (both positive and negative) by neighbourhood youth, to engage children as co-researchers helping us to understand how the space is being used by others in the community and the activity opportunities the park currently offered, and to empower the youth to develop potential solutions that would help the park to better meet the needs and wishes of all user groups in the community. More than 100 students participated in total, ranging in age from Grade 2 to Grade 8.
The workshops were dynamic, hands-on and interactive sessions which took place directly in and around the forest park itself. Students spent time in the forest mapping out environmental assets and challenges, considering the opportunities or barriers for various community users including seniors, young families and older teens, and envisioning improvements and additions to the space. Children were then led through group visioning exercises where they used their field research to develop solutions that would support their own interests, but also developed design solutions to meet the needs of other users in the community.
thrive design consulting then synthesized data from all workshops and activities to develop a nuanced picture of the current use and experience of the forest park by local youth, as well as the identified priorities and design recommendations of the children. These results were shared with the larger Design Consulting Team and the Neighbourhood Action Group to be integrated into final redevelopment plans.
Summary Report for Youth Engagement Workshops
child-led community playspace design
client: Lazos de Corazon, communities of Aviacion & Mocupe / Zana Valley, Peru
Over the course of 2 summers (2010 & 2012) we facilitated an innovative participatory design / build project with two vulnerable communities in the Zana Valley in northern Peru to plan and install community playspaces. Local children, aged 2 to 16, served as the prinicipal designers for their new playspace, conducting research and developing their designs over the course of two weeks. In Week 3, the whole community came together to make the children's designs a reality, building the new playspace in the course of 5 days.
The goal of the both of the playspace projects were to lead each community in a planning process to establish local needs and wishes for a community playspace, then engage local children in an intensive playspace design process where they were appointed the primary decision-makers. Finally, we worked with the community to source building materials and then to install the playspace as designed by the children.
One of our key objectives in working with the community of Aviacion, Peru was to introduce the children to the principles of designing for diverse, inclusive and engaging play environments, which would then inform their own designs. However, in addition to the language barrier, we were also working with a large group of children (up to 30), ranging in age from 2 to 16 years. As children of different ages and abilities will respond differently to approaches for exploring and developing design ideas – some may flourish during hands-on activities while others work best through group brainstorming – providing all in this large, diverse group with opportunities for meaningful participation required a multi-component and multi-method process. Using varied but complementary activities allowed the process to move forward while addressing the differing abilities and comfort levels of diverse participants.
Several methods were employed with the children of Aviacion to communicate and explore the principles of play design. Initial discussions about the children’s current play activities and environments were fostered through both the creation (and optional presentation) of individual drawings of favourite play spaces or activities, as well as child-led tours of favourite community play spaces where the activities were discussed, or in many cases demonstrated, in-situ. The variation in modes and group size in which they could express themselves yielded a fuller, richer picture of both their individual and collective play experiences. A series of photo-based presentations were also used to communicate elements of and ideas for designing for play. In addition to helping move beyond language barriers or differing reading/writing abilities, utilizing photographs of examples of both formal and informal play environments exposes children to a range of provocative ideas and spaces, including those that may be currently beyond their everyday experience, sparking imagination and creative juices. Care was taken to highlight projects or ideas that were appropriate to the culture and context, including examples that featured indigenous materials, techniques or practices.
In addition to using photo presentations to explore potential building materials for their designs, children investigated local materials and their properties through several hands-on activities. First, the children set out on community material inventory tours where they observed and/or photographed the materials commonly seen in their community, noting interesting ways in which they were used, as well as appealing textures, shapes and patterns. Later, common local materials such as adobe brick, sugarcane and rubber tires were laid out in separate materials play stations. Groups of children rotated through the stations and were given free rein to interact playfully with the materials to test their properties and possibilities. Many experimented with the materials through the building of whimsical temporary structures and sculptures (which provided as much entertainment in the tearing down as in the building up). This kind of playful exploration of materials proved vital in helping the children to refine and finalize their designs.
Interspersed through all these activities were many opportunities to sketch out and develop budding ideas. These opportunities were progressive in that they began first by working individually or in small groups to make note of or sketch out the examples they found compelling as well as their own original ideas; the children then moved on to further design development within larger groups, where ideas were continually refined and combined with those of others to create a single collaborative design. After each group of children developed their design solutions, they presented them to each other as well as to members of the community. Parents were astounded at the sophisticated designs that the children developed for the play space.
Another strategy for facilitating meaningful engagement was the integration of an informal mentoring program within the process which fostered both a sense of control and the development of leadership skills, particularly among the oldest youth in the group. Children were divided into 4 large mixed-age groups for the duration of the project, with the older adolescents in each group designated as leaders responsible for organizing and guiding their younger group members. Many of the youth blossomed under these responsibilities, and demonstrated incredible patience and generosity when interacting with their younger cohorts.
Though many tasks were assigned to children based on their age and ability, the playing field was levelled when it came to a number of the democratic processes that were embedded within the project. All child participants, regardless of age, gender or ability, had an equal vote in a number of critical decisions about the playspace. For example, the ideas of each group of children were summarized through hand-drawn pictures of the desired element, such as swings, a place to climb up high, a place to sit in the shade, sand play, or a tunnel. Each child was able to vote for their favourite 10 elements; those elements which scored highest across the whole group were integrated in some way into the final synthesized design. The children were also responsible for selecting the name of new playspace. After a large list of possible names was developed, several rounds of voting by the children eventually resulted in a final consensus. The children chose to name the new playspace: Parque Magico de l'Aviacion... The Magical Park of Aviacion!
When a final design was developed and approved by the community, a large portion of the community turned out to help build the new playspace in only 5 days. One of our objectives was also to involve the children directly in the building process as much as possible; adults and professional contractors worked side by side with the community children, teaching them new skills and allowing them to try their hands at various building processes. Participating children were also each given the opportunity to decorate their own personal 'bubble' on the mural which flanked one side of the playspace. Working with a local artist, the children as a group decided on the content for this community mural.
After 5 intensive but thrilling days, we finished the installation of the new playspace, and celebrated with a huge community party!
The final stage of the process was meeting with community members to discuss their experience of the project, and to help equip them with the tools to continue caring for the space. The feedback from the community was overwhelmingly positive, and children and adults alike were excited to have been part of this collaborative project.
In 2012, we returned to Peru and conducted a similar participatory design / build project with the community of Mocupe, installing a playspace more than 4 times the size of the Aviacion park.
For more information about the processes and products of this project see:
Playrights Magazine article: The Magical Park of Aviacion