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Observations during Year One of The ArtParks Experiment

by Tim Brown Executive Director, Tracy Aviary

“Six young children busied themselves moving rocks from one location to another. The kids, probably 4-5 year olds,

Ruby stacking painted rocks

Ruby stacking painted rocks

were stacking rocks for a couple of minutes, and then they started aligning them in patterns for several more minutes. Then they were back to stacking. Meanwhile, their parents huddled together and discussed what the kids “should” be doing in this space. “There’s no instructions” I overheard one say. “What are they suppose to be doing?” I heard another ask.

For twenty minutes the kids played cooperatively among themselves while their parents tried to solve the mystery of what the children “should” be doing. The kids got it, the parents didn’t.

The parents were part of a playgroup that brought their kids to Tracy Aviary for the dual purpose of letting kids play with people their own age while parents were able to have “adult” conversations with each other. The design of this space lured the children in, and then they played and required no parental involvement. The parents should have taken advantage of this opportunity for their “adult” conversation, but they were too hung up on the fact that there weren’t instructions telling people how to use the space, perhaps implying that without instructions, the space wouldn’t be used correctly? The kids got it, the parents didn’t.

Richard Louv dedicates some of his Last Child in the Woods book to nature play areas and how kids once upon a time would go outside and have fun. Louv explains that kids just a generation ago would have fun with things they found in nature, sticks and stones, grasses and mud. Creativity ruled the day, and the only instruction from parents was to come home when they heard the cowbell ringing. But things have changed. That empty lot in the neighborhood has sprouted a house and today kids, if sent outside all, often end up on one of those standardized play sets – swing, slide, rock climbing thing, maybe a suspension bridge.

This space is the Art Park at Tracy Aviary, and it’s been designed as a nature play area. It features dirt, rocks, trees, sticks, and mud. There aren’t instructions on how to use it. All summer long children have gravitated to this space at Tracy Aviary and had a blast. Sometimes parents venture into the space with their kids, more often they stand on the perimeter and watch their children play. Some accept that their kid is having fun and just watch. Other’s get flustered, not knowing if their kid is behaving right, unsure whether it’s alright to move rocks from one spot to another or if sticks can be stacked together to make a lean-to.

The energy behind the art park has been Chris Peterson of the Great West Institute, a local non-profit organization. As a conservation organization dedicated to fostering healthy relationships between humans and nature, Tracy Aviary is a willing partner and we look forward to future experiments in how to design nature play parks to inspire creativity among our kids while enhancing their appreciation for nature.            –October 12, 2009

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young scouts showing off their primitive weapons they produced in the ArtPark (of their own volition)

Young scouts showing off their primitive weapons they produced in the ArtPark (of their own volition)

Giraffe overlooking Amazon Bird exhibit

Giraffe overlooking Amazon Bird exhibit

Brooke and Shiloh

Brooke and Shiloh pushing a cart full of artmaking supplies through the Aviary

Start here: Let your curiosity be your guide

Start here: Let your curiosity be your guide

Painted Stumps, Nest Making Stations and a new ditch, dam and mud pit.

Painted Stumps, Nest Making Stations and a new ditch, dam and mud pit.

Over the weekend, Brooke and Shiloh accompanied me to the ArtPark to add some new features and make some improvements for the school year visitors. Some new signs were hung, as well as a number of giant painted animals; designed and created by the students of Dilworth Elementary. The Aviary’s own volunteer crew had dug a canal and small pit for the mud required to build flamingo nests. We painted stumps (as per the design recommendations of Youth City Artways students who helped envision the space last May. While we were there, a cadre of Cub Scouts helped us do some painting before becoming preoccupied with creating their own primitive weapons. All the while, Shiloh placed herself in the middle of the action and ended up covered in paint, including a huge chunk of orange in her hair. (As we drove off, I asked her if she had fun. “Yeah”, she said, “Shiloh need soap.”

  Fort-making is encouraged in the ArtPark

Fort-making is encouraged in the ArtPark

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DSC03644This labor day weekend, the ArtPark received some improvements to better facilitate imaginative and educational opportunities for children visiting Tracy Aviary. Katherine Brown (GWI Intern) created some signs for new exhibits about creating flamingo ad finch nests and eggs. We also brought a number of children to the park this weekend who participated in creating new features in the park. Zoey Brown, Ruby Brown and Shiloh Peterson helped paint birds and flowers on benches and tables and also helped me create a bamboo hut structure. A number of new directional signs were also added. Check out this flickr link below for many more detailed photos.

DSC03641

ARtPark-Labor Day Weekend

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