August 2014- the baby cube is done!

These are some photos of the “baby cube”, designed for the REACH Early Intervention program, for use with the toddler play groups. It features a platform swing, slide, “bottle baby” ramp and truck, and places to climb, as well as some fine motor block games with wood blocks. Once finished, it will be set up for extended trial to see how it works…P1010122

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A new direction- starting a “baby cube”

I met with staff from the REACH early intervention program last week at their new site in North Amherst. They have moved recently into a wonderful new space in a renovated old elementary school building, where they will have play groups with the babies and toddlers. The school has the kind of high ceilings and huge windows that remind me of the school building where I build my first indoor playground back in the 1970’s. I met with staff to discuss plans for building some play equipment for their new site, and also to drop off two smaller pieces for them to try out. The ball ramp and “bottle baby” truck were designed with pre-school kids in mind, but should also be fun for the younger children. I have been looking for a place to try out these small designs, and my hope is to put plans for them up on the site once we get feedback that the designs are working as I intended.


The “Bottle Baby” Truck lets kids lift and carry around bottles, and push and pull the truck around


The ball ramp lets kids set up a long ramp for rolling balls or small cars

This new direction in building for an early intervention program was inspired by a generous grant received from Steven Salky and Gail Ifshin. The have been enjoying their first grandson, Jameson, born last December, and so the connection to building for infants and toddlers just seemed like a perfect way to move forward with the Playscape Project right now. I am also happy to be able to work with a group of wonderful and experienced early intervention therapists and educators on this project, including Arlene Spooner. My own background is much stronger with pre-school age kids, but I am certain I can get great feedback from these seasoned and wise early intervention staff to help with the design process.

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Ball Stomps for the Valley Opportunity Council

20131004_07234920131004_07255120131004_07230120131004_072253On Friday October 4th I made a return visit to the Valley Opportunity Council in Chicopee, MA to deliver 38 ball stomp toys to a wonderful group of home day care providers. Back in May, Arlene Spooner and I had presented a workshop on motor development to this group, and I was so impressed with their energy and interest in helping kids that I wanted to include them in the project in some way. The grant money from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts allowed me to buy materials, and I also need to thank my family for lots of help with painting and decorating the toys. My daughter Helen Murphy and my wife Nan Salky did a wonderful job making each toy a work of art!!


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Plans for spring

The month of May brings a rush of activities and community work and training. We have three “toy bags” in circulation in three pre-school programs, and are finalizing an evaluation so that we can get feedback on how they are working. Much of the work in the next two months is based on the completion of the one year grant cycle from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) , as we work to document and demonstrate what we have accomplished with their generous support.

We have plans to distribute two more toy bags in the next few weeks. One will be given to the New Beginnings Childcare Center in Springfield after a staff training session on May 31st, and another toy bag will be donated to the pre-school Occupational Therapists in the Holyoke Schools, also following a training session set up for the first week of June.

I have been working on a fun small project, building a “ball ramp” that kids can assemble and use to roll different sized balls and toys cars in a classroom. I’m hoping to get several small design projects out for trial in June. Along with the ball ramp, there is a fun “bottle baby delivery truck” and a new batch of ball stomp toys built by Kevin Cote, my OT student intern from Springfield College. Kevin is also going to be helping with getting feedback from the centers where we have placed the toy bags, and helping gather the information we need to complete our evaluation of the project since we received the CFWM grant.

I also played a music gig on May 14th at the Lumberyard Restaurant in Amherst that raised another $95. for the Playscape Project. I want to thanks Elissa Maruca and Kelly Regan for their kind donations, and for coming out to to hear the music!!

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May update- the toy bags

We have now donated three complete toybags for pre-schools in Holyoke and Springfield. These are rolling suitcases filled with movement toys and small props to help teachers in their pre-school classrooms. This has become a focus for our community outreach, as we work to have a lasting impact on local children. The three toy bags so far were donated to sites run by Children’s House. I have been involved with the Holyoke Children’s House program for more than 12 years, and wanted to start this toy donation program with staff I could be sure were motivated and interested. I did an evening staff training back in March for all three Children’s House sites, and was so impressed with the level of interest and enthusiasm that night that it was clear they would be a perfect choice for the first places to share the toy bags.

I have run teacher training sessions for a long time; part of my training involves showing and demonstrating how simple toys and props can be used in the classroom,to teach foundation motor skills and give children a wide range of satisfying motor challenges as part of these simple games and play. I give handouts that describe the toys, and the teachers get to see the toys and props during the training, but this is the first time I have tried going to the next step and giving out the toys and props for teachers to use. I think of it as not just teaching how to fish, but providing the rod, reel and bait!!!

It’s been fun to bring the toys bags to each center and spend time with kids doing a demonstration of how the toys and props can work. It feels a little like Christmas being able to hand over the toy bags and just say “Have Fun”.

We will be returning to each center in the next 6-8 weeks to get feedback on how the toy bags are working, and there are three more toys bags in the works, set to be donated in the next month. We wish to thank the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts for their generous support for this project.


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March 23, 2013
This week has brought news that will require a major shift in the Playscape Project. To my great surprise and disappointment, the Massachusetts EEC has now reversed the approval needed to try out the playcube in a child care center. The EEC states:
“The licensing staff use the Standards for Licensure as a tool for assessing the environment and equipment as well as other areas in programs. Equipment must be designed to withstand the use by many children which is why commercially made equipment is required. Commercially made equipment have been determined to meet federal standards for use. In some cases equipment has been recalled when it has been deemed unsafe due to injuries to children and programs are required remove the equipment. Your equipment has not been reviewed by any organization such as ASTM and there is no way to know whether or not it is safe to be used in a child care center”

My strategy for the development of safe designs for play equipment has always been to bring in collaborators from as many diverse backgrounds as possible to insure the safety of the equipment. This has been a crucial part of the project from the beginning, as I need to insure kids will be safe, and safety has been at the center of my thinking all along. A focus on safety is also crucial to anyone who designs anything these days, as there are liability issues that can create a huge risk for the designer if anyone gets hurt and lawsuits result. This is the reason the current playcube design insures that children stay close to the ground as they play and explore; it minimizes the potential fall and injury risk. I have asked and received consultation from a number of experienced designers, engineering professionals and developmental therapists for feedback on the design. The choice of materials and construction is sturdy, stable and able to withstand active play as is required.

I view the current situation with the EEC as part of a much larger question that has grown in significance and touches every aspect of how children are raised and allowed to grow and explore. It has influenced and often controlled the very factors that have resulted in indoor environments for children that offer so little in the way of opportunities for active movement and play. It is the question of acceptable risk, and how children need to be allowed to take some risks during active play and exploration in order to gain the confidence and skills they need to grow. Efforts to insure safety have often resulted in the removal of more and more “potential hazards” that are identified and removed during safety inspections. This leaves empty play spaces and the absence of any level of physical challenge that children need.

Children need to move and crawl and throw and catch and slide and ride and swing and jump and they need opportunities to challenge themselves every day. A sedentary childhood is a form of neglect. Everyone who seeks to protect children needs to work together to provide environments that offer the chance for children to move and learn from ongoing movement challenges. My years of experience both as a pediatric therapist and as a consultant in pre-schools has taught me that children who lack experience and opportunities to move end up more frustrated, less ready to learn, more difficult to manage and much more likely to misbehave than children who are given the chance to move and exercise every day.

My vision for the playscape project has always been to engage the whole community of people who interact with pre-school children. I have not been seeking to become a commercial playground supplier, as I am well aware of the financial constraints that limit budgets for commercial equipment in most pre-schools. Most pre-schools can simply not afford the sort of expensive equipment that might be available commercially, and so children’s needs remain unmet. The goal of the Playscape Project is to devise simple and inexpensive designs that can be duplicated and donated to preschools that can not otherwise afford them. I hope to connect and build a community of volunteers who would donate labor and time to build indoor play equipment using plans the Playscape Project generates for their own communities. Volunteers could include high school vocational students, retired adults, parents and family members of pre-school children, artists and hobbyists who love to build things. The list is long and the potential for good is limitless. The EEC is lacking vision in insisting that only “commercially made equipment” can meet the needs of children. I will continue to advocate for a wider vision that allows people in the community to help their their own children, and also examines why “safe and sedentary” is not the best way to protect our kids, and will actually cause them harm.

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February Update- 2/23/13

This has been an important week for the project, with several meetings that will help set up the next phase of our work. I met with Linda Lenahan, an inspector from the Massachusetts EEC (Department of Early Education and Care), who kindly agreed to take a look at the “playcube” design before it is completed. I wanted some feedback from someone who inspects child care centers for safety issues, and hoped I could get suggestions on any safety modifications that need to happen before the actual construction is completed. The meeting went well, and several changes in the design will be incorporated once the weather warms up and I can return to working in my barn on the playcube. The biggest change will be to try to enclose the sides of the cube with a “play friendly” netting, in order to insure that an especially agile and adventurous child can’t climb over the sides of the cube. The alternative would be to use thick mats around the entire cube, which would be quite costly. The netting idea was something I had considered, and could offer a nice sense of enclosure and privacy to children playing inside the play cube. If the “ceiling” also has netting, that could be a nice spot to let the balls land, and then jump and reach up to knock them down…

I want to thank Karen Cassidy, RN for her help and advice and guidance over the last month. She has been a wonderful source of information on different aspects of the project, helping me find connections for the places to try out the playcube and extend the outreach of the whole project. She also took time to come offer support and ideas during the meeting with the EEC inspector.

Karen also helped put me in touch with Linda Lastowski, Quality Assurance Coordinator from Square One in Springfield, who in turn has introduced me to Tabitha Desplaines at the New Beginnings Childcare Center on State Street in Springfield, where we will try to install the playcube in the Spring. They have a newly renovated space in the center where the playcube would fit very nicely, and upwards of 80 children who could play and use it each day. I will start with a “meet and greet session” at New Beginnings in March with the staff and parents, and try to get to know the children with some exercise sessions before the playcube arrives.

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December 27th- A generous gift!!

I am thrilled to announce and acknowledge a generous donation to the playscape project this month.
We have received a $2500. gift for ongoing work from Steven Salky and Gail Ifshin from Chevy Chase, MD.

This donation will be crucial to our ongoing work, as it can provide financial support during the transition period between the completion of our first grant cycle next Spring, and the submission of our next proposal for additional grants.

The building project has slowed down this month, with colder temperatures making it difficult for me to work in my unheated barn. I am turning my focus to trying to devise a plan for outreach into the pre-schools for later in January, as we explore where we can try out the new “play-cube” design.

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December 8th- Playcube video is up!!

Happy to announce the video of the playcube is up and running on the website home page!
Thanks and welcome back to Elissa Maruca, who has rejoined the project. She will be using both her technical and video skills, as well as helping me when we restart our direct work with kids in local centers next month.

Thanks again to Brian Gulick for shooting the video, and to Elissa for adding more footage, and figuring out how to post it.

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Update- House Concert raises more than $1200.

The House Concert on Saturday October 20th raised more than $1200., with additional donations still arriving.

The event was hosted by Charlie Parham and Roxanne Schneider in Amherst, with upwards of 40 guests. I want to express my gratitude to Charlie and Roxanne, as well as to the musicians. Ted Ellenhorn on guitar and Ed Brainerd on trumpet joined me for a set of folk and blues from the Sad Song Radio songbook. Josh Bogin joined us on guitar and vocals. The second jazz set featured Kirby Farrell on piano and Ed Brainerd on trumpet. What a warm and wonderful home for music!!

I also want to thank my daughter Emma for her incredible desserts, and special thanks to Nan for all her help and support, and those wonderful tamales!! My daughter Helen also contributed all the way from California by sending a gorgeous drawing from which we made cards to sell, and a beautiful postcard party invitation.

I also need to thank Brian Gulick for help in making the last minute video that allowed me to show everyone what the “play-cube” looks like, and especially for his efforts in transferring it onto a DVD, so we can get it posted on the website. As with everything technical, there are always complications, but I look forward to getting the video up on the site soon, and will be looking for feedback.

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