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Creating a Perfect Place to Play

March 05, 2014

McMichael SchoolThe Morton McMichael School, home to 500 grade school students from West Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood, is in desperate need of a place to play. The current playground is eyesore that’s probably unsafe with cracked asphalt and concrete pavers, and sinkholes. The water management system is environmentally unsound.

For the past two years, Interior Design program director Debra Ruben has a led a participatory design seminar, working with McMichael School teachers, staff and Drexel engineering students, advised by Prof. Franco Montalto, to address the playground’s physical and aesthetic challenges, and their solutions address water management issues. Ruben and her students held workshops and McMichael students created drawings and models to express their visions for an ideal playground space. Drexel students then incorporated their ideas in the schematic playground designs.

The result is a playground that includes sustainable terraced gardens, trees, a rain garden providing green space, shade and seating. Their designs create a system that serves as an in-depth water management system. Solar umbrellas resembling sunflowers provide shade for a café that doubles as an outdoor classroom. An electronic jungle gym allows children to set up their own original games and even compete with other schools that have the same system. Embedded kinetic energy tiles around the schoolyard entrance collect kinetic energy through footfall and convert the children’s energy into electricity. Signage will educate about environmental sustainability.

Ruben’s earliest supporters on the McMichael School playground project were Drexel President John Fry and Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. In 2012, Ruben received a Drexel Community Research Grant to work with the McMichael School on developing a new playground design just as she and her students did two years ago when they transformed more than 80,000 square feet of Rudolph Blankenburg School’s outdoor space into a multi-use play area. Ruben has also helped form partnerships with Philadelphia Mural Arts and the eDesign Dynamics engineering firm to add creative and technological elements to the project.

“I conducted my first Architecture & Interiors class dedicated to this project in spring of 2012, and we’ve since held five upper level seminars and independent study courses,” says Ruben. “These classes have allowed our students to collaborate with second-grade students and help them understand how their school fits in to the community. The ability for these young students to contribute input to the design gives them a sense of purpose and value. The participation and engagement with the community of children, teachers, parents and local neighborhood was the fundamental objective in creating a preliminary design.”

Ruben also conducted pre- and post-occupancy behavioral studies at the playground to both determine optimal use of play space and to open the door to future public works partnerships with Public Health Departments. She is now working to obtain Scientific Review Committee approval on the McMichael project. If all goes well with her application for a Stormwater Management Incentives Program grant from the Pennsylvania Water Department, Ruben hopes to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the new playground this fall.