More playground chat (and a little Schenley history)

The crowd at the Schenley Park Cafe.

The crowd at the Schenley Park Cafe.

Today was the Playground of the Future team’s concluding lecture at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center, and we had a great crowd of folks interested in learning about the history of playgrounds and current trends in play.  The group also unveiled two of the products of their work: a web archive of their research and the prototype of a new water maze (more on that in a minute). 

One thing I found interesting was the concept of loose parts playgrounds, which allow kids to creatively use available materials to construct their own play areas.  This seems like a great idea and a more imaginative alternative to the fixed-structure play spaces I’m familiar with, but the team found that it is sometimes difficult to implement these playgrounds because of the need for staffing.  I couldn’t help but think, wow, wouldn’t it be cool if new play worker jobs could be created as part of an investment in infrastructure?  Funding new playgrounds probably isn’t considered a top priority in this economy, but as an investment in infrastructure that benefits child development, it’s an interesting idea.

Beware a tangent ahead…
Listening to the lecture made me think of something our former docent coordinator gave me a couple of years ago.  In a paper called “Landscaped Visions: A History of Schenley Park, 1889-1990,” there’s a section about the playground movement that reveals the changing definition over time of what makes a park a space for moral uplift.  Edward Bigelow’s original vision for Schenley Park was as a pastoral oasis, a “breathing space” for the city in the City Beautiful style of passive recreation.  He believed that parks could provide enjoyment and spiritual refreshment for the masses, but most of the activities (carriage and horseback rides, golf games, symphony concerts) were actually enjoyed mainly by upper-class Pittsburghers in the 1890s.  (The notable exceptions were Bigelow’s huge Fourth of July celebrations in the park–check out Francis Couvares’ The Remaking of Pittsburgh for more on that subject.) 

But after the turn of the century, advocates for progressive reform wanted to further democratize the park by adding more recreational facilities, including playgrounds.  Citizen’s groups wanted children to have broader access to what was then the city’s largest park, and in 1902 Schenley Park got its first playground.  A shelter house between the park’s bridle path and race track was turned into a playground with swings, simple athletic equipment, and a wading pool.  Many other children’s programs followed: Saturday fishing programs, day camps, picnics at Panther Hollow Lake, and visits to Phipps Conservatory.  The playgrounds themselves were not the passive enjoyment of natural beauty that Edward Bigelow had envisioned, but they were a gateway to bringing children and families into the park for the “moral uplift” he had always wanted people to experience.

Tangent concluded.  Now onto the water maze, one of the most fun results of the Entertainment Technology Center students’ project.  The team wanted to come up with a new kind of playground toy, and they had an idea for a water maze in which people could work collaboratively toward a shared goal.  Using nanotechnology, the surface of the maze is coated with a highly water-repellent material that makes water behave like mercury.  Players have to work together to guide water droplets to a certain place on the maze, where LED lights will shine to show their progress.  You can read more about it (and watch a video of how it works) here.

Joey Yeh, Kelsey Livingston, Laura Lantz, and Marlos Hu with the Water Maze

Joey Yeh, Kelsey Livingston, Laura Lantz, and Marlos Hu with the prototype of the Water Maze

We’d like to thank Kelsey, Laura, Joey, and Marlos again for dedicating themselves to such an interesting project over the semester and for including the Parks Conservancy in their work.  We are grateful to them not just for teaching us a lot about playgrounds, but for starting a conversation in the community about how technology, play, and parks can all work together to give kids a brighter future.