Architecture students join effort to save play in Philly

by Missy Benson

I recently had the opportunity to bring attention to a proposed play space for an elementary school designed by recent graduates from the Philadelphia University’s College of Architecture and the Built Environment.

The graduates gave a presentation on their play space process for Philadelphia’s E.W. Rhodes Elementary School last week at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. They demonstrated a wealth of knowledge about the importance of a play space for this elementary school. Solutions were based upon community need research, design charrettes with Rhodes elementary students, staff and teachers, coordination with the Philadelphia Water Department and critiques with Metcalfe Architecture and Playworld.

Presently, there is no play space for the 400 students at Rhodes since this building and site previously served as a high school. As in many urban areas, there is a tremendous need for a playground here and the architecture graduates provided a play scape vision that addresses  concerns of both the school officials and the community.

I truly enjoyed the discussion during their presentation about the physical, social and intellectual benefits of free play for children. The presenters also shared the importance of free play to the ‘individual’ child.

I was impressed by their site analysis process of the entire community and existing conditions. For example, they knew what other recreation opportunities are provided in the surrounding neighborhood and they offered shade and elevation change solutions to this hot and flat asphalt site. During the concept presentation, I admired the custom rounded play forms providing a variety of elevated play, the proposed shaded seating areas with clear sight lines throughout the space to provide supervision for both teachers and caregivers. Further, the walking trail around the entire playground will provide multigenerational use and exercise as well as accessibility.

The custom play scape design provides vertical and cable climbing/balancing, play spaces for a variety of games, ages, individual/group play, pretend play and has the rounded shape theme also adds a bonus of safety since there are no sharp corners in the design.  Their design process proposal states: “To create an artificial extension to the pre-existing natural environment, in which the vertical members imitate a wooden environment while the circular discs imitate topographic changes that encourage both physical and mental growth.” The circle is the unifying element and is repeated throughout the design.

I felt fortunate to witness their passion about the importance of free play for this school and surrounding neighborhood. It further demonstrates the energy focused on changing Philly’s urban landscape – something I feel every time I visit. Our evening together also showed the significant advantage of multidiscipline responses as both landscape architects and architects explored the graduates’ solutions and material choices together to help create a distinct, attractive and fun play space.

David Bender, associate director, Philadelphia Center for Architecture, introduced our program. I introduced both Christopher Kircher, professor of this design-build class and Michael Laris, director of product development for Playworld. Kircher, a registered architect at Metcalfe Architecture & Design, provided a summary of the project prior to the graduates’ presentation.

A special thank you to everyone who helped set up this presentation as well as Ethan Blades with the Community Design Collaborative. I hope to continue to support this project with a repeat performance at the Center for Architecture in a few months. The graduates will continue to work with Philadelphia Water Department and other Philly agencies to help raise funding to build their play scape. More information here:

The time these graduates spent interviewing and working with the Rhodes elementary students provided a great playground for this site and may help these new architects continue to think about the needs of children throughout their career. If students continue to be taught about the importance of designing for the scale and abilities of children we have a much better chance to save play in our society.