The Imagination Learning Park at The Boys & Girls Club of Bristol, Conn.
By Kelli Anderson
Staying true to a vision can be well worth the effort, as the successfully innovative Imagination Learning Park proved this past fall at its opening at the Boys and Girls Club and Family Center of Bristol, Conn. Boasting creative features like a children's greenhouse, a painting station, sensory gardens, musical 8-foot chimes, a water play/exploration station and, of course, more traditional elements like a sandbox and playscape, the new playground has more than satisfied the goals of the Club's ambitious vision.
The City (home to the Club's Imagine Nation Museum, opened in 2004, and considered one of the most exciting, interactive children's museums in New England) has added the new $175,000 park to its list of unique attractions thanks in great part to a grant from the state. But it was the combination of the museum and the Club's Imagine Nation Preschool, also on the site, that inspired staff to consider an outdoor space that could be more than just recreational.
"Our ultimate goal was to have recreation but to be something blended with the Imagine Nation Museum, letting kids recognize that a lot of fun events are also learning events, and to get them engaged," explained Michael Suchopar, chief professional officer with the Club about their desire to further children's learning experience through use of the outdoor facility as part of the preschool programs and museum exhibits. "But in an outdoor area, how do you integrate education and creativity and recreation?"
The answer, he explained, was found with the collaborative input and imaginative thinking of teaching and museum staff, administrators and dedicated designers. Staying with the vision is essential as well, even being willing, as were Suchopar and his staff, to go through more than one designer to find the one who can hear what is being said and can understand the concept in order to create the details that will make that concept a reality.
"You want to make sure they work with you and that you are in charge of what you want," said Coral Richardson, director of early childhood education. "We were really fortunate—they didn't do anything without checking with us first. They were very thorough at every step."
Richardson also explained that because of the collaborative nature of the project, her input, based on her expertise and understanding of early childhood centers and classrooms, was part of the information used by the designers to ensure that there were all kinds of different outdoor centers in the park. When pressed to choose her personal favorite, Richardson admitted that she loves the greenhouse.
No doubt, First Lady Michele Obama, an avid supporter of home-grown veggies, would approve. Her initiative, "Let's Move," was also noted by Doreen Stickney, director of the museum, as part of their collective vision. "We embraced the 'Let's Move' initiative, dedicated to solving the problem of obesity," Stickney said. "The playground provides a wonderful opportunity for children to promote wellness, emphasize the importance of active play, and to connect children to nature in their daily lives."
Richardson agreed, adding that community is also part of that equation. The greenhouse, for example, engages and attracts gardening clubs in the community to participate and help children to see where produce really comes from, an educational experience the children need.
But being a play area for many groups (the community, the preschool and museum guests) and subject to state codes and regulations about safety as well as limitations on capacity, designing the play area posed some logistical problems. Thankfully, the solutions to those same problems proved to be attractive assets.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was in the configuration of the space, defined by irregular long and narrow areas as well as wide expanse, leading to concerns about supervision and visibility. However, by dividing the play area into different zones that can be separated by easy-to-move, attractive and lightweight barriers, the play area is not only visually much more appealing and interesting, but it allows multiple groups to use the space at the same time.
"Communication has to be good and we have a really specific schedule. Because of state licensing with our childcare program, they have to have guaranteed space opportunities," Richardson explained of their ultimate solution. "But we have an innovation that was developed through my experience with playgrounds and understanding regulations to make sure we can have more than one group use the playground. The barriers are very unique and allow us to have different zones in the park. It's simple, easy and aesthetic, and makes it easier to supervise, too."
Although the park is less than a year old and will be enjoying its first summer season in the months ahead, the community has already responded to the unique design and experience of its new park. "It's been a great hit," Suchopar said. "The kids love it, the staff love it, and the parents are impressed. The satisfaction is greater than we thought it could be."
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