Tom Murphy MS OTR/L ATP, the director of the Bogin Playscape Project, has worked with pre-school children for nearly 50 years. He has recently retired after 26 years as a pediatric Occupational Therapist for Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. He has also worked on a grant program with the Holyoke Community Partnership from 1999-2011, screening pre-school children for motor development at four pre-schools in Holyoke. This work involved nearly 3000-4000 pre-school children, and provided the perspective on declining motor skills in the pre-school population that led to this project’s development. Mr Murphy has also worked as a designer of indoor children’s playgrounds, designing and building playscapes for programs in New Rochelle. NY and Bronx, NY in the 1970’s. He also spent 12 years as a Rehabilitation engineer designing wheelchairs, adaptive equipment and specialized in designing for the pediatric population from 1980-1992
Thanks so much!!!
2/8/12 I’ve been trying to update the website, and improve some of the original writing that was intended to be used on grant applications, with a less formal style that feels more real. With this in mind, I’m including a piece written (but not presented) for the “Ignite Amherst” event that took place last night in Amherst. Though the event was overbooked and we didn’t get a spot, it was helpful to get this ready and try to think of how to describe the project in “less than 6 minutes” (the “Ignite” event gives each speaker only 6 minutes to present their ideas)
So here goes;
I’ve spent a good bit of time writing descriptions of the Bogin Playscape project, as I begin the process of trying to get support and grants to get started with this idea. The process of writing grants and proposals brings out a certain kind of formal language that is needed for that purpose. Unfortunately, it can make the topic feel quite stiff and academic, when what really excites me about the project is much more emotional and intuitive. So this is my chance to talk to you about my passion for this work, and try to strike up interest, because I’m excited about it.
I’ve worked with pre-school kids since I was in high school some 40 years ago. The growth and excitement of learning that explodes out of kids between ages 3 to 5 has always drawn me powerfully; I’ve always felt that working with kids this age is the world where I most belong.
I had the good fortune to spend the last 12 years as a part-time consultant, working with four different pre-school in Holyoke ; I was part of a grant program to help identify kids with delayed motor skills before they got to kindergarten. Two or three mornings a week I got to play with kids. I showed up with a rolling suitcase full of toys and a few simple props to organize the sessions. I never, ever got bored with it, though most of the time I was playing the same games over and over. It was always so interesting to watch kids learn, and see skills emerge that were absent a few weeks before. Like watching seeds sprout up out of your garden. Over 12 years there must have been a thousand mornings I did this work, and several thousand kids that I got to watch grow and change.
Over the course of those 12 years, I started to see a disturbing trend. While there were always a few kids in each class that clearly needed my help more than the others, I started to notice that more and more kids seemed to be showing up in pre-school classes who just looked way behind where they should have been in motor development. Instead of two or three in each class, I’d see 6 or 8 kids who really seemed to need help. The whole idea with the grant that was paying me for my time was to identify the kids who needed help and refer them for services in the schools, but that wasn’t really a great solution. The school system was overwhelmed, and lots of times the referrals took so long to get through the system that the kids were already in kindergarten before the help could get started. So the weekly sessions started to be more like small group therapy, and for many of the kids, that little boost was enough to get them going. Just being there, to be playful and pay attention, and be in the moment with them as we played these simple games. Call it “underground play therapy”. Call it anything you want, but I could see it worked. For anyone who works with kids in a school system, there’s often the frustration of realizing how much of the effort to help kids takes place with adults having meetings, talking about planning and documenting the help kids are supposed to get… lots of reports and “measurable goals”… yet here I was in Holyoke, just doing these simple games and watching kids gain skills and confidence and being joyful without an education plan or an action plan or any of the paperwork in sight. One of the real joys of the work was seeing how kids could make these leaps in skills, and then seeing how it gave them confidence and a sense of themselves that would remain. They wouldn’t even remember me, or what happened, but those seeds, those sprouting skills would continue to grow stronger and sturdier as they made their way.
Sadly, the grant ended, last July; just as so many programs that help kids have faced cutbacks, the grant program that hired me stopped funding the consultants.
But I had another idea that was already cooking… I had been in contact with an engineering professor at Smith College, and we were already moving ahead with the idea of getting students involved in building play equipment for preschools. The seminar began last September, with six students from Smith College and from Springfield College. Most of the first semester was spent looking at the world of kids play in pre-schools, and the factors that are contributing to this trend of kids who are three showing up in pre-school moving through the world like they’re only 18 months…The causes are complicated, from way too much screen time from a young age, to kids growing up in neighborhoods where there aren’t enough opportunities to play outside and ride tricycles and go down slides and swing on swings like most of the grown ups in this room did when they were at that age. It starts with how babies are growing up, sleeping on their backs to prevent sudden infants death syndrome (SIDS) (this is a legitimate health risk) , but those concerns have had unforeseen consequences. Many babies today are not spending enough time on their tummies to learn the skills that come when you push off the ground to hold yourself up and look out at the world. Babies and kids in general are kept so safe, often sedentary, so that kids simply don’t get a chance to move. They get placed in infant seats and car seats and they don’t get to crawl around on the floor much because, of course, they could get hurt… and we have become so intent on that extra measure of safety that we’re giving up on the opportunities kids need and crave and use to learn about the world through their bodies.
Our focus is on getting kids to move and play indoors; not because outside play isn’t crucial, but because we live in New England. Kids in pre-schools often spend months of time indoors because it’s too cold, too snowy, too rainy, too hot… and the opportunities for play indoors are just so limited. Some of this is safety concerns, and also the reality of liability concerns that keeps pre-schools from letting kids jump or climb or ride indoors. Safety seems to trump everything else, but I am here to tell you that safe and sedentary is not the answer. We have never seen a generation of kids grow up with so many distractions and so little opportunity to move and play and explore in the ways kids have always done.
So we are getting started with a few initial designs, trying to use simple and inexpensive materials for movement toys that can be used right away, in the spaces where kids spend their days. We’re not thinking indoor playgrounds here, because most of the centers don’t have the space for it. We’re trying to develop a whole series of small modular designs, so that a center can choose and use what fits in the space they already have. Once we have designs that have been field tested and proven safe and sturdy and fun, we will put the plans on our website where anyone can copy them. We’re not selling anything; we want to make them available to anyone who has the hope and desire to help kids. I dream of a whole community of retired engineers, grandparents, high school and college students, architects and urban planners and people who love to build things, and want to make a difference building these designs and donating them to a local pre-school. Why aren’t people doing this already?? Well good simple designs aren’t so simple to create. Legions of lawyers are sharpening their pencils and looking for accidents and product liability claims any time kids get hurt when they play. This makes schools and people like me scared to put things out in the world, just in case someone, somewhere might get hurt. But this focus on safety at any price, causing fear of letting kids move, is the most important thing that has to change. So I also dream of getting more creative minds working on this problem, and opening up a new conversation about what kids need to grow up in this world. We can make a difference, we can figure out what kids need, and we can start to build it. That’s my dream.
Thanks for listening
This letter to Dr Howe at Smith College in March of 2010 was the beginning of the playscape project, and my initial attempt to contact Smith College with the idea for the project. The letter also describes my background in more detail.
Dear Dr Howe, 3/14/10
I am writing to follow up on the introduction my dear friend Charlie Parham made to you on my behalf. I was grateful he took the time to inquire for me, but I wanted to introduce myself as well. I will try to describe briefly some ideas I have carried around with me for many years, related to designing for children, and wondered if any of these ideas could offer an opportunity for collaboration.
My professional life has taken me quite far from where I began. My undergraduate studies were in furniture design, where I first explored designing for special needs. A dear friend was disabled after disastrous back surgery, and I designed and built a bed mounted device for her to read large text books for her studies. I also built a desk chair for her, specifically suited to her size and needs, and discovered an alternative world of furniture design that moved me away from the world of fine furniture and cabinetry and towards design with a “social conscience”. While an undergraduate, I also had the opportunity to design and build two indoor playgrounds for pre-school children. This work designing for young children was in itself a blending of interests; before I attended college, I worked for several years as a pre-school teacher assistant. It was in this everyday experience of working and observing children play that I began my lifelong interest in what makes an interesting and challenging environment for children.
Following my undergraduate degree, I spent 12 years as a rehab engineer, working for Massachusetts Dept of Mental Retardation. This was an exciting time to be involved in the world of wheelchairs and adaptive equipment; there were opportunities for getting new ideas out in the world, and innovation was moving quickly to build smarter, lighter, and more adjustable equipment. My special interest remained in designing for children. Several of my designs found their way to the commercial market, and are still manufactured today.
Working to design adaptive equipment was always a collaborative process. I worked closely with Physical and Occupational therapists along with the families and individuals who needed these custom products. Eventually, I found I was frustrated at my own lack of clinical training, and decided to return to school to complete a Masters in Occupational Therapy. I was uncertain how I would combine working as a therapist with my earlier interests, but felt the need to widen my own background, and find a new path.
These past 15 years as an Occupational Therapist, I have worked to use my unconventional background; joining the staff of a small community hospital like Cooley-Dickinson has allowed me to wear different “hats”; I remain primarily a pediatric therapist, working with children with developmental disabilities. In addition, I have run an active outpatient wheelchair and equipment clinic for both adults and children. This work has allowed me to remain connected to the equipment design field, helping patients choose the right equipment. I’ve needed to learn about what’s on the market; what’s new, what works best, and most of all what I can convince insurers to pay for. Instead of designing anything, it’s a matching process to suit each individual adult or child with what’s already out in the marketplace.
At the same time, I have found myself back in pre-school settings, working several mornings a week as a an independent consultant with a grant based program in Holyoke. The grant provides for therapists to screen children at Holyoke pre-schools as a means of identifying children with motor skill delays before they reach kindergarten. It has given me an amazing opportunity to watch and be involved with how children learn and move and play, and the crucial role of motor development in learning. I have screened several thousand 3-5 year olds in the 10 years of this grant program, helping give a boost to children who are lagging behind, and helping teachers understand how to help the children with delays. This consulting work has also led to running training programs for teachers, parents and staff to enrich their own pre-school settings.
I apologize for this long introduction, but it seemed important to describe my background and how this led me to contact the Smith Engineering Program. My work in Holyoke has shown me very clearly how children need to play and explore and learn to use their bodies in order to focus on learning. It is unfortunate that more and more children seem to be entering pre-school with lags in their motor skills. It is a complex issue, involving parents who have less time to encourage their children’s play, and neighborhoods that are no longer safe for children to play outside without adult supervision. In addition, there is increasing childhood obesity, and children spending far too much time in front of TV and other “screens” and other forms of sedentary play.
Here’s where the collaboration with Smith Engineering could play a role. I have long dreamed of returning to the world of designing for children’s play. While many pre-schools have interesting outdoor play equipment, my experience has been that it remains unused nearly half the year. Children only can go out when the weather is warm enough, dry enough, and the New England winter lasts a very long time. The centers I know in Holyoke are all crying out for innovative and interesting indoor play equipment. It is a tremendously misunderstood and challenging design problem. Efforts to insure children’s safety has led to fairly strict guidelines regarding indoor play equipment design. This has led to most pre-schools choosing to limit opportunities for climbing equipment, swings, and most anything that could create a liability risk.
I seek a partnership of some kind that would provide an opportunity for exploring some of these design issues related to children’s play, with a chance for students to be involved in work that is tremendously important and extremely exciting. There would be potential for this sort of design work to be adopted in centers quite widely, and for the work to have a crucial role in helping young children. Good design also helps the hardworking teachers and staff who struggle today with inadequate and dull indoor play spaces for their children.
I am drawn to the Smith Engineering program in particular, as a women’s college, because the world of pre-school teachers is almost exclusively a world of women. Helping give pre-school teachers the tools they need to do the work of guiding young children seems a perfect challenge for young women learning to design and innovate in our world. It offers a relatively simple set of problems- what do kids need in order to play and explore, using simple and low cost materials, that can be set up in a manner that is safe and yet stimulating. But there is real work to be done to get these designs right, and I hope to interest others to get involved in the process. I am especially interested in working with students who already have an interest and aptitude for design, and feel I could offer a fairly unique skill set as a teacher or consultant.
I would be happy to meet with you if any of this seems interesting or appropriate for Smith. I thank you for taking the time to read this, and for your consideration.