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What is the value of play? How is it perceived in different countries--in communities different from our own? How does play affect a developing child, a school, a community?
How can design be integrated into research to maximize use of limited materials within a playscape?
These questions were the basis for TiLT: the Playscape Project. I set out to answer and solve them last year as I traveled to rural Himalaya Nepal for 4 months, immersing myself in many levels of cultural research on as it pertained (directly and indirectly) to design. Due to foreseeable challenges, the scope of the project was only loosely defined upon my arrival--research early-childhood development (in Nepal), as it correlates to play, and through incorporation of my findings I'd design a playground for a local, disadvantaged primary school. My goal was to use only local materials, recycled/up-cycled if possible, utilize the construction techniques and skill-set of locals, and all within a short timeframe, actually build the playground within a budget I'd fundraised in the US beforehand.
As I dove deeper and deeper into my research and design work, I realized through countless phases of iterations that TiLT would be more than a new playground for an impoverished mountainside village school. It would open minds, shift perspectives, teach, empower, inspire.
It would tilt my Western approach to design and research; the final result being a beautiful collision of two worlds, design, and a creative impact platform in the form a playground.
As stated in the project description, TiLT began as a loosely defined playground design project. I set out to solve a problem discovered from a sparked interest in playground design and play culture--how does it differ from a Western society to an underdeveloped society? The design of the playground itself would rely heavily upon research conducted on early-childhood development and its correlation to play. The final solution would aim to produce a purposefully designed playscape for an extremely disadvantaged primary school.
While a project of this nature requires multiple types of extensive research, ethnographic methods were highly important in the success of the project. I lived with Nepalese people during the entire project. Total cultural immersion was an aspect I strongly valued towards understanding my users and the environment in which my design would live. During the first two months I stayed with a host family, where my daily experiences and observations served as cultural research; I was also able to conduct direct interviews, as they spoke mild English. The subsequent two months I lived at an orphanage more near to the school where the playground would be. Here, though hardly anyone spoke English (a soon-to-be challenge during the design and construction process) my observations and experiences became more valuable towards research as I shared daily life with children. During both living situations I spent a considerable amount of time visiting primary and Montessori schools, observing play times, interviewing teachers, and noting on play equipment and spaces. My conclusions from this aspect of research: Western cultures have different attitudes and values about play, and these attitudes and values are not universal. I watched children play very roughly with each other, with trash, with any objects they could find. Interactions and safety were a particularly interesting finding in cultural play difference. Furthermore was the cultural aspect of being culturally sensitive; going in to the project with an open mind allowed me to really understand my users. Living with them, working side by side on a daily basis; questions that were important to ask and identify included understanding how I was perceived--as a designer, as a female, as a foreigner--as well as understanding the true environment we'd be working in, what the physical yearly environment the playground would stand in, and very importantly, the knowledge and skills of those I'd be working with.
Seeking counsel from professionals in the field was another important aspect of my research. I couldn't rely completely on my personal experience and observations, and I couldn't rely completely on internet searches. I made contacts with several non-profit organizations, researched construction techniques in other countries that used similar materials, and in combination with experiences was able to start the design phase. Ideation centered around individual element construction. What did my laborers know about construction? What tools and materials were actually available? How do I design the elements as simply as possible in an innovative way to my users--while designing safety and a long life-cycle into the playground?
As the initial basis for my playground design, ECD was a core component to the final design. I found that play greatly affects cognitive, social, and physical development in children, and in areas where resources are scarce, the exposure to play is therefore crucial. The school I worked with was incredibly impoverished and had few to no learning materials/resources. I wanted to put as many opportunities for development into the playground that I could.
Using local materials was a personal criteria for the project, however, researching and finding materials in Nepal isn't a trip to Home Depot. Days upon days were spent traveling in cities and villages finding materials, taking notes, later researching sustainability and usability; I also spent much time researching local construction techniques and how these could be utilized and improved. I quickly discovered that safety practices and regulations do not exist where I was; here was an opportunity to teach about basic practices (pinch points, heights, safety radius space, etc) and include these directly into the design. During my hunt for materials--which were narrowed down to tires, water tanks, wood, and bamboo (a metalsmith is not hard to come by)--I found another opportunity to teach; as an example of creativity. Using 'trash' in a playground is not common practice but I was able to successfully change mindsets on this topic.
The first phase of design (elements/construction feasibility/materials) was followed with total playscape design, or how it would all fit together. Once the final design had been communicated with a translator, we could purchase necessary materials and begin construction. Construction began with a simple yet thoroughly research design and flow plan in mind. Every day of construction began and ended with issues, misunderstandings, roadblocks...causing a need for constant iteration and learning--on both sides. Power cuts caused days without work if electricity was needed. Rice harvest caused countless days with no available labor. Language barrier caused miscommunication. Lack of education and cultural differences caused frustrations and errors.
At the end of the timeframe, we had successfully, as a community, constructed a playground.
The final solution was more than a playground for the kids at the school. Not only were my own perspectives shifted, design strategies expanded, and research methods challenged--but the attitude of an entire school and community was altered to view play, creativity, sustainability, culture, and education through play differently. My hope was to provide an example of these things through the design of a playground and implement them into the generation of children at the school. Further than my goal had been, TiLT specifically and successfully utilizes ECD research, a blend of safety features, sustainable practices and local materials.
I have been informed that there is currently another playground project in progress at a school nearby!
What most moved us was the openness to local realities that came across so strongly in the story of this project.
Great example of open mindedness and divergent thinking
It's really rare to see a student actually take themselves across the world and immerse themselves in the culture that they're studying. This student spent 4 months living in Nepal studying.
The student was able to see it wasn't just about creating a playground- it was actually a platform to shift mindsets and open up new possibilities of interaction in the community.