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The Play Gap

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In the inner city neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island, Janice O’Donnell set up playgrounds where kids could build anything they want, and break anything they want. She has been stunned by what everyone has learned in the process.

By TODD OPPENHEIMER

The Architecture of Ingenuity | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2016

With a pittance of funding, the Providence PlayCorps has built summer playgrounds in the inner city of Providence, Rhode Island. A case can be made that playgrounds like these, built mostly of discarded ''loose parts,'' are more creative, more fun, and more educational than their fancy counterparts in wealthier neighborhoods.

Several years ago, Janice O’Donnell, the director of the Providence Children’s Museum, conducted a survey of public school superintendents in her community to see how much recess time was available to students. Virtually everyone who responded said they considered recess important, but only a tiny percentage of the schools actually offered it anymore. When O’Donnell started looking into why this was happening, not only in Rhode Island but elsewhere in the country, she was stunned by what she learned.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, many teachers felt their students no longer had time for recess. With the increased emphasis put on standardized testing, their primary job now was to make sure students got high scores. Playtime could be handled after school. At other schools, especially those in crowded inner city neighborhoods, there was no longer any space for playgrounds, or even a basketball hoop. Among those who could and did offer recess, many teachers used it for leverage with difficult students. If they misbehaved, or didn’t finish their work, they had to stay in class during recess. And the pattern in poor urban communities was the worst.

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