Bernheim Playdate!

Bernheim Facilitator Collaborates with Portland Museum on Playground Design

Event recap written by Elijah Humble for the Portland Anchor

On Saturday, August 19, the large, open backyard of the Portland Museum was buzzing with the activity of about fifteen children, ranging in age from five to thirteen, intently focused on bringing their ideas for a new playground to life.

Claude Stephens, Facilitator of Outreach and Regenerative Design at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, led the effort to bring together his own expertise (he helped bring the popular 10-acre Playcosystem at Bernheim to life) with that of a variety of local children, to get their input on what they’d like to see in a playground. Stephens believes this feedback is crucial to creating a play structure that kids will respond to and engage with, rather than relying of previous designs and boring templates.

“Kids are the experts of what makes a good playground,” he said as he addressed the group at the outset of the “participatory design charrette”, the technical term for the collaborative information gathering process. “Let’s blow it up. Maybe the playground you want hasn’t been built yet. Let’s pull it out of your brain.”

“There are no rules”, he said.

Portland Museum Co-Executive Director Danny Seim added: “‘We want this to be a natural, organic process, rather than a formal process. It’s a blank canvas.”

And the kids did not disappoint, as they left their screens and video games behind and enthusiastically dove into the piles and boxes of “loose parts”, such as wooden blocks of various sizes, strips of cardboard, sticks and leaves, clay, tongue depressors, string, acorns and walnuts, masking tape, egg cartons and toilet paper rolls.

There were many common themes and design categories that the children used to execute their ideas, including — perhaps to be expected due to Portland’s history with the river — plenty of nautical elements and concepts. But the kids often employed trampolines and tunnels, bridges and ziplines, slides and ball pits (one girl referred to foam blocks as “cheese pits”), tire swings and pulley systems, and lots of climbing platforms and hiding spaces. The kids were clearly very passionate about their creations, and more importantly, gave deep consideration to how they saw themselves interacting in these mini worlds they created.

Elements of nature also intersected with the various climbing and activity spaces. One kid sketched out a giant fish you could go inside, and one project included a bird house. One concept featured a web to climb on. “Webs are hard,” Stephens said. “I leave those to the spiders.” While another child gained inspiration from a beehive, simply because “bees are awesome,” she said.

Another consideration, according to one of the kids, was having an area to rest after all this playing. “I made a hammock, like beds on the bottom,” she said, also in reference to parents, who may need a break. “For when you’re tired and you want to take a chill pill for a minute.”

Stephens and the Portland team were pleased with the fruitful results of the session, and all agreed that the kids took the task seriously and produced an impressive array of thoughtful options. Stephens was clear to note that there were no guarantees that anyone’s design would be used. But he noted to the group that “any design team would be happy to have you on their team to capture your ideas,” he said.

Museum Co-Executive Director Katy Delahanty said they are finalizing details with a design firm and hope to break ground late next year, in conjunction with larger AHOY! project.