A play space for children and parents

The hastily scribbled note on the bulletin board says it all: ''Thank you a million times, this is the only place I know where the children don't ask for food. Kitchen-weary mother of three.''

The grateful mother is one of thousands of parents who are benefiting from a program at the Boston Children's Museum designed to make being a parent a little easier.

''Playspace'' is just what its name implies, a place for children to play. But it's also a major part of the museum's Early Childhood program, which is working to promote an environment in which parents and children can share and learn from each other.

Through a three-year grant from the Carnegie Foundation, the program's directors are seeking ways to promote similar projects across the country in other areas where families spend time, such as shopping malls, libraries, waiting rooms, airports, and supermarkets.

Playspace has been evolving over the last 10 years. The museum, which is geared to children 6 to 12 years old, found that for parents to be able to bring these older children they needed facilities to care for their infants, too. A Plexiglas-enclosed play area was set aside. The result, according to Jeri Robinson, director of the Early Childhood program, ''was that soon everybody was watching the babies. We had a sort of live baby exhibit.''

It still is an exhibit. The sign in front says that. But it has grown from a playpen into an activity center that offers children a place to play and interact with other children, and parents a place to talk and compare ideas on how best to bring up children.

The size and shape of the family is changing, and includes more single-parent families, teen-age parents, older couples having children, and working mothers. Parents today seldom have the support of the extended family of previous generations, when Mother lived just down the street.

Contending that parents could use a lot more practical support, information, and better role models, Ms. Robinson says Playspace is designed ''for the average mother and father out there who are just raising their kids, who have all sorts of questions, and are not sure they're supposed to have these questions.''

Playspace seeks to answer some of these questions. Not through rigid educational or psychological methods, but through a more general, personal approach.

Parents are given the opportunity to get out of the house, have an enjoyable place to bring their children, and talk with others in similar situations. Ms. Robinson thinks parents will manage better by simply knowing they're not alone - that other parents are facing the same challenges.

The focal point of Playspace is a very large room, which is divided into several smaller areas. There's a toddlers' area in one corner, a projects table, a playhouse, a two-seater car and gas pump, and, in the middle of the room, a fortress of slides and ramps and tunnels and passageways.

Based on years of experimenting with design possibilities, the seating areas have been arranged to offer various options. Parents can interact with the children, or gain a new perspective on how their children behave by sitting back and just watching them play. Parents can also relax and share experiences and ideas with each other, something the Playspace staff considers vital.

The museum staff doesn't act in a heavy-handed way. Playspace program manager Litty Medalia says, ''We're simply trying to be a family support system.''

Ms. Robinson concurs. ''We say to parents, 'You know your own child best. Think about you, your own values, where you want to go next with this child. Here are some things that might help you. But I can't tell you how to raise your child.' ''

Playspace is a laboratory for Ms. Robinson, an adoptive mother with degrees in child development, and her co-workers. She says, ''We do a lot of responding to who our audience is. We don't try to develop in a vacuum. All of our programs and things that happen out on the floor really develop out of comments our visitors give. We take them to heart.''

And parents do respond to this supportive approach. On any given morning the room is alive with the sounds of playful activity. Mothers, fathers (a significant number of them), and dozens of toddlers can be seen climbing around the fortress or servicing the car. A little redhead pops out of a tunnel and just as suddenly retreats. A black girl carries around a stuffed bear at least a foot taller than she. Parents talk to one another or read or play with the children.

With such a positive environment and attitude, the program can better deal with the more weighty issues it sometimes confronts. Brett Cook, the project manager, speaks of how the Early Childhood program, in conjunction with a teen-age work program, is helping one teen-age mother. ''We're trying to give her some modeling for her parenting needs, and they're trying to deal with her as a teen-ager in what her teen-age needs are.''

Also, the staff has received reports of how just being available has alleviated potential cases of child abuse. Instead of staying cooped up at home, people have gotten out, visited Playspace, and, with a more balanced point of view, have worked to resolve their conflicts.

In addition to the museum's low-key approach to providing help, it offers specific programs such as parent-child workshops and support groups for first-time parents. It sponsors seminars for almost any group that is working on and thinking about the education of young children and parents. These include foster care programs, high school child development courses, baby sitters, and day-care programs.

There's also a parents' resource center with child development books, and a lending library of toys and activity kits.

Now the museum is trying to see how variations of the Playspace program can be adapted to other settings.

Jeri Robinson says, ''Young children have different kinds of needs, and institutions need to pay attention to them.'' Following the Playspace model, several institutions across the country are looking at this new approach.

The woman's prison in Framingham, Mass., is collaborating with the museum in redesigning its visitor center.

Ms. Cook says: ''The children have this need, their mothers are there, and there has been nothing for these children to do. It's been very difficult for parents, after a week of not seeing the child, to be able to do something worthwhile with him.''

Similar projects are under way in museums, libraries, and hospitals. Ms. Cook and Ms. Robinson are writing a book on how to adapt such a project to these other settings.

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