A new collaboration between Industrial Design students, alumni and BC nonprofit The Power of Play saw sister playgrounds built in Squamish, BC, and a Maasai community in Eco Boma, near Makuyuni in Tanzania.
Led by designer and ECU faculty member Christian Blyt, six teams comprising students and alumni from Emily Carr University and Guangdong University of Technology (GDUT) in Guangzhou, China, worked through late 2023 to design sensory playgrounds for children with all abilities.
“It’s been important for students to understand that the children they’re designing for may have different abilities, but to also think about how they can respect or enhance their specific culture. Because the Maasai are struggling to retain this very rich culture in the 21st century,” says Christian, who is a visiting professor at GDUT and teaches there twice a year. “We want to be very, very thoughtful. And for the students, I think it’s been an eye-opening experience.”
Both the Tanzanian and Canadian playgrounds were completed in December, 2023. A community ceremony marked the opening of the Tanzanian playground on Dec. 18.
Roughly 2,000 children live in the Maasai community where the playground was built. Approximately 300 of them are children with disabilities, including low vision or hearing loss.
Working across timezones and languages, teams from ECU and
GDUT developed proposals for a low-budget, sustainable and locally
sourced playground. They were also charged with ensuring their designs
are engaging for children with disabilities. They worked over a
four-week period with final presentations taking place in late November.
Maasai Elders took part in the selection of the final design. Designer Caden Hao (BDes 2023) volunteered as Christian's teaching assistant on the project.
Along with five GDUT students, designer Shelby Sixsmith (BDes 2021) was part of the team that developed the winning proposal. Their design includes a “weaving wall” and an awning to filter sunlight and rain to create shifting patterns on the ground.
“In Maasai culture, there’s a lot of beadwork, a lot of pattern-making. We wanted to incorporate that in as many elements as we could,” she tells me via Zoom from Medellín, Colombia. The weaving wall, for instance, allows children to create patterns and knots with coloured ropes. It’s also a “sensory wall,” where textures can be experienced through touch.
Accessibility and sensitivity to place characterize all of The Power of Play’s projects. The organization builds sustainably produced playgrounds around the globe, bringing care and consideration to its mission of empowering children.
The Power of Play founder and CEO Reza Marvasti says play is a crucial building-block for the kinds of cognitive learning that happen later in life. But play is also how children process difficult emotions or traumas. For Reza, this observation is rooted in personal experience.
“I was born in Iran and was growing up during the Iran-Iraq War,” he says. “Play was a safe bubble for me during the bombing. In the bunker, I would play, and that was the only time I was in control. The only time things made sense. That’s where this idea is coming from.”
The Eco Boma playground represents the third project on which Reza, Christian and his students have collaborated. Other projects include a playground built on an orphanage school in Sri Lanka, and a set of smaller interactive objects designed and built by second-year Industrial Design students for the children in the orphanage.
Francine Fang (BDes 2022) worked on the winning proposal for the Sri Lankan playground project. Her team incorporated tactile and sonic storytelling elements throughout their design. Their playground offered children ways to communicate including through vibrations, movement and speaking.
“We tried to see storytelling from the children’s side of things,” she tells me via Zoom from Luoyang, China. “This is what inspired our playground. You can touch, feel, listen, see.”
Reza notes that he’s received glowing feedback both from the communities where playgrounds are built as well as from the student designers.
“I’ve had conversations with some of Christian’s students and they told me how important it was to feel their design was making a difference,” he says. “They just have so much compassion.”