If I wrote an essay titled “This, I believe”, it would include paragraphs championing topics like working in the margins, community engagement, good design, taking risks, and the wonder of beautiful children’s books. So when I saw a design brief for a children’s play structure design competition, with winning entries to be built and donated to communities in need, naturally I felt compelled to enter.
I am a full-time healthcare architect and a mom to three small boys. Every evening for weeks we had been reading The Rooftop RocketParty by Roland Chambers, a watercolor journey to the moon and back in a rooftop water tank. What would it be like, I wondered, to bring this book into three dimensions as a thematic play structure? I emailed the author, Roland, agonizing over the exact wording of my crazy collaboration idea. To my eternal surprise, he was eager to participate and we began exchanging ideas over Skype. Working in the margins after my children were asleep, I collaborated with Roland to design a theoretical children’s play structure with spaces for moon bouncing, rookie rocket pilots, and of course reading.
Our entry did not win, but it did catch the attention of Debbie Frisch, founder of Hello Baby. Debbie was a local foster mother and philanthropist embarking on the development of a not-for-profit play space for children in the under-served neighborhood of Woodlawn. She was about to sign a lease for a tenant space and knew she needed design services to make her idea real. “Do you know people who design things like this?” she asked me. “Debbie, we ARE people who design things like this!” I answered, and a project was born.
Working within the structure of Perkins+Will’s Purpose initiative, we were able to pitch the project idea to leadership and secure a contract for pro bono design services for the 1,000 square-foot space. Within weeks, I was helping lead the Hello Baby design team and facilitating client visioning sessions. Challenged to do the most good with a small space and with a limited budget, we innovated. We looked at studies in Play Theory and developed that knowledge base into a Community Play Inventory to learn how children were playing in the neighborhood and where their developmental needs were unmet. We used this data to scrub, expand, and scrub the design program until we had a lean mandate that allowed Hello Baby to provide their most impactful core services and shed corroborating services to partner-providers in the community. This avoided wasteful duplication of services and forged reciprocal partnerships between neighboring service providers.
Buoyed by the sheer fun of designing a moon-bouncing play structure, we worked with the client and community representatives to imagine how architecture can bring together child and caregiver in play. The architecture had to do the job of scaffolding play, providing the visual prompts that make an easy springboard for imaginative adventures without over-stimulating. Our team envisioned a dynamic cozy nook at the front window, where parents could connect over tummy time and toddlers could bring smiles to passerby with impromptu window-front puppet shows. We splashed a rainbow of color into toddler-height toy cubbies, empowering toddlers and sparking an opportunity for parents to teach color names. We used colorful and tactile flooring to delineate zones, creating visual barriers instead of physical ones to give children an opportunity to practice following the rules. We created a collaborative slate art wall where even the youngest guests can exercise the art of sharing: making, keeping, and being a friend. This is the work of childhood.
The result is an innovative and fun response to the needs of urban families; a vibrant space that has garnered love from its guests, and was just honored with an ReDesign Award for Social Sustainability from AIGA. As far as we know it is the only free playspace of its kind, anywhere. A typical review on social media says, “This is a needed space for the neighborhood. An amazing environment for children to grow with phenomenal staff. My daughter really enjoyed playing. Thank you for this incredible space on the Southside of Chicago.”
Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship David Schonthal says of innovators: “in order to find something that is truly a revolutionary change (and not an incremental change) you need to look in non-traditional places, because if you’re only relying on traditional ways of finding out insights, you’re probably going to come up with the same insights that your competitors do. If you look in new places you’re bound to find new things.”
Design competitions provide outsiders a look at what designers do and create space for dialogue with potential clients about projects that may only be in the idea stage. Competitions offer architects a safe space to take design risks, engage a diversity of teammates, stretch into market sectors outside our daily exposure, and design for communities that may not otherwise purchase our services. Design competitions propel us to look in new places.
To learn more about Debbie, Hello Baby, and the project as a whole, watch this interview segment which aired on NBC Chicago’s “Making a Difference”: