Design Work Reveals The Dynamics of Play

STUDENTS at Public Schools 185 and 208 in Harlem have played an active role in the process of redesigning their schoolyards.

For many students, it has been a learning experience. "I've learned where things should go and why they should go there," says fifth-grader Jesus Gonzalez.

Through extensive interviews and detailed drawings, the students shared their ideas for the new playgrounds with the designers. Each student did three drawings - one to show what they actually do in the present yard, one to show what problems they encounter on the yards, and another to show what their ideal schoolyard would include.

"Adults think that all children do is run around and play," says Roger Hart, director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the City University of New York Graduate Center, which is sponsoring the project. "That's perhaps why the only thing they provide is running, jumping, climbing, and swinging apparatus. In fact, when you look at children's play, the biggest amount of time is spent talking and watching."

For this reason, the redesigned playgrounds will provide clusters of benches and tables for socializing.

Teachers, students, parents, and community members participated in planning sessions where they could manipulate a scale model of the yards and develop various designs for the space.

Of course, what's important to parents and teachers isn't usually what stands out to kids. "The mud hole is at the top of the kids' list and the bottom of the parents' list," says Mark Francis, a landscape architect who is working on the project. "The participation process gets the kids and the parents to essentially negotiate with one another.... You end up with elements that relate to both groups."

"The kids certainly are dreamier than the adults," says Cindi Katz, co-director of the project with Mr. Hart. Some wanted swimming pools, for example. "They also understand that you can't have everything in this one life or in this one schoolyard. Even the youngest children were able to prioritize and trade off the swimming pool."

Hart says he wouldn't recommend that others take the same in-depth approach to participatory design. "It's too time-consuming," he says. "We wanted to try everything out in terms of process and some things worked better than others."

A similar project in the South Bronx is just getting under way. The design process is being streamlined for this redesign, and planners will use the most effective aspects of the Harlem project.

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