One week ago I sat at a community dinner table in a church kitchen in Central City, New Orleans surrounded by a group of African-American kids ranging in age from four to ten. I know them well through their involvement with PlayBuild, a neighborhood play space and design education program that I co-founded in November 2012.
As usual, the kids were boisterous and chatty with no trace of the concern or anxiety that had been weighing heavily on my mind for nearly a full day since the conclusive results of the presidential election.
“What do you think of President Trump?” I asked eight-year old Glennisha, the little girl seated next to me.
“I heard he’s going to send us all back to Africa,” she said matter-of-factly while my heart constricted in my chest.
Her words brought home the fragility of childhood. The not yet fully formed understanding of place and belonging. They brought home an increased sense of urgency to the work we’ve been doing at street level in New Orleans for the past four years.
Eleven years after Hurricane Katrina many city blocks in New Orleans still bear the physical scars of the flood. Empty lots thick with tangled and towering weeds; dilapidated clapboard houses collapsing in on themselves; and green vines and foliage covering every manmade surface—these are the visual norm of the city.
One of these blocks is home to PlayBuild, our neighborhood play space and non-profit headquarters. Born from a citywide challenge to find scalable solutions for blight, we evolved PlayBuild from a vacant lot to an alternative playground, a tabula rasa purpose built for hands-on, design-inspired learning through play.
Our slow evolution over the past four years has allowed the neighborhood kids to grow with us and to inform each stage of our growth. They understand that they belong there. It’s a place for them where their imaginations reign.
Toys are our tools, and we instruct to empower. A bright green cargo container houses our arsenal—from classic Froebel Blocks to two massive bins of David Rockwell’s large-scale bright blue Imagination Playground pieces and rolling wooden carts of Cas Holman’s oversized erector set—the Rig-a-Ma-Jig.
We use these toys to lead groups in guided hands-on building and design-based activities with lessons themed around design basics, local architecture, city planning and sustainability. Through immersive, tactile play with kid-sized toys and materials, design becomes a contact sport.
Physical play and active problem solving, even with the most basic toys, tangibly reinforce abstract concepts making them real and memorable.
Where We’re From, Where We’re Going
Awareness and agency are our goals. We want the kids we work with to recognize and appreciate New Orleans’ rich design heritage. Going beyond the celebrated local architecture to the historically African-American craft of wrought ironwork and the colorful beaded costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians. An awareness of local design traditions equals an appreciation for a diverse mix of influences—Afro-Caribbean, European and Native American and how those cultures are constantly present for us today.
As Central City undergoes a seismic wave of revitalization, we want our kids to see themselves as agents of that change. Our guided play activities encourage them to vision solutions for the everyday challenges they see around them—such as a wheelchair lane for our disabled neighbor.
Four years into our work at PlayBuild, we’ve made an impact on our Thalia Street block. We’ve established pride of place and fostered a network of creatively confident kids. Through integrating a diverse mix of design practitioners into our volunteer network we’re planting seeds of what these kids might be when they grow up.
But our work here is far from done. Especially when 8 year-old Glennisha’s words so starkly illustrate how quickly a child’s sense of identity and belonging can be decimated.
As a haven against an imminently rising tide of negativity and propaganda, we can provide a safe space for kids to play and learn. A space where they know they can belong, and where through creative expression with the most analog toys they can build out their dreamscapes, work through challenges large and small, and embrace their potential to design the future block by block.
Angela Kyle is co-founder of the design education non-profit, PlayBuild, and Head of New Business for North America for the global design and branding firm Wolff Olins. She is based in New Orleans where she has lived for the past six years. A passionate advocate of experiential learning and the role of design thinking for social impact, Angela holds an undergraduate degree from Brown University and graduate degrees from Columbia’s Business and Journalism Schools. She currently sits on the Advisory Board for Taylor Forward, the strategic planning committee of the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University.