NEW YORK (September 10, 2012) — Two years ago, when big blue blocks made of molded foam appeared at Burling Slip in New York City, parents and children from the neighborhood rushed to try out the unusual playground. The blocks were lightweight and easy to move around. Children immediately started using them to form shapes, build different structures and create entire new environments of their own.
When child development specialist from New York’s Columbia University Cassie Landers came across the design, she though it was perfect for children growing up in crisis and post-conflict areas, where opportunities for education and play are limited, and funding is scarce.
Two years later, the UNICEF team is testing @Play in Bangladesh and Haiti.
UNICEF podcast moderator Femi Oke spoke with Landers and Tipa Tipa Program Country Director Evelyn Margron, who is implementing the project in Haiti.
Landers discussed features that made the foam playground a good choice for challenging environments: “It was a mobile unit. It consisted of big, blue foams, and it was something that was used to inspire children’s dreams, to help them rebuild their confidence and rebuild communities.”
In Haiti, UNICEF and its partner Tipa Tipa, a Haitian foundation that works with schools serving disadvantaged populations, have integrated the playgrounds into ten urban and rural schools.
“When we began conversations with the UNICEF office in Haiti, they had a very valuable point, which was that they didn’t want children to stay in the camps and the tents for very long. So we created an opportunity to have these playgrounds integrated into the school environment,” said Landers.
Margron described children’s first reactions to the playgrounds: “They just love it. At first, they are fascinated. They look at the blocks, and then they start moving and picking them up and building very interactively. I think it’s amazing what we have seen of interest and interaction.” She pointed out that children are developing many skills in the playgrounds, such as learning geometry, verbalizing better and following rhythm. They are developing important social skills by learning how to play together and how to help younger children understand their capacities.
According to Margron, one of the most crucial elements of this project is that it highlights the importance of learning through play. Learning and play, in certain cultures, are often perceived as opposites.
“People are finding out that it’s good to be happy in schools because schools are very straight and have a tendency to separate happiness and learning. I think that some teachers are realizing that you learn more if you are happy, and this is something that we are going to stress in the training. It is important to be happy to go to school because you are going to enjoy what you are doing and you are going to learn more,” she said.