The City of Cambridge has launched a Participatory Budgeting Project earmarking $500,000 for citizen-proposed public works. A number of the proposals that have emerged from the process are playground additions or improvements; quite a few suggest traffic-calming and pro-biking infrastructure improvements. I’ve suggested that maximum benefit to the greatest number of children would be the creation of free play areas that are green, utilize existing or demarcate new open space, and provide some urban wildlife and “discovery” opportunities for kids. Such green free play areas needn’t be separate proposals, but could result from further elaboration of several existing proposals.
Exposure to nature has freestanding, positive effects on mental health, independent of the physical activity that is also often enabled by parks. Research increasingly supports this benefit, one which most Cambridge children do not enjoy.
Most of our city’s green space—of any significance, habitat-wise—is highly concentrated at one end of the city (Alewife Reservation, Fresh Pond Reservation, Danehy Park, and Mount Auburn Cemetery), as I’ve written previously here.
These four large open space areas are, for a host of reasons and with many exceptions, not generally used for unstructured recreation (also known as “playing outdoors”) by the vast majority of the children and youth who live in Cambridge. Some may dispute this assertion, especially with regard to Danehy Park. The devil is in the details.
Here’s a link to a proposal for a park near Hampshire Street in Cambridge, where I’ve commented about making such a tweak to increase the breadth of kids’ chances to “play outdoors” in a larger sense. Here’s a proposal for a partial transformation of Donnelly Field, to which I’ve appended a similar suggestion (Donnelly Field on Google Maps).
The days of old-fashioned playgrounds are over. Children’s brains are starving for imaginative play, and play in natural settings, involving the whole mind as well as the body. The full sensory impact of plants, trees, birds, water; digging and creating tiny villages in dirt and sand; climbing, balancing, playing hide-and-seek around, and jumping on and off logs and boulders; even picking (yes, picking!) wildflowers—these are the play opportunities that have been lost to city kids, and what we must restore to them.