Story 03: Birth of PlayspaceStory | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives
Written by Jeri Robinson
By 1978 it was readily apparent that the museum had a large mom-and-baby audience that was not just accompanying their older brothers and sisters. We had seen the success of Before You Were Three and experimented with other early childhood exhibit pieces and programs in Grownups and Kids and Through the Looking Glass.
A "place to play," or Playspace, began its first real incarnation with the help of a small grant from the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The exhibit was jointly developed by Jeri Robinson and Janet Kamien and designed by Andy Merriell to increase the opportunities for integrating handicapped and non-handicapped children in the museum. Children under five and children with special needs were viewed as requiring a protected environment where they might play and explore at their own pace in a quiet area away from the often hectic activity of the other exhibits. It was thought that these two groups, needing to develop more mastery over mobility, could practice their gross motor skills in a safe place.
The elements of this first Playspace came together in a way that would still be recognizable to today's visitor. The focal point was, as it remains, the Castle and Slide, full of passageways and peepholes, and accessed by carpeted ramps.
Carpeted modular seating created semi-protected play areas for quieter activities and relaxation. Partially enclosed by a full wall with viewing windows to help screen out noise and heavy foot traffic, Playspace I was painted in soothing earth tones and designed to appeal to adults as well as children.
The modular seating and storage benches allowed staff to try out a variety of interior designs to suit the needs of parents, toddlers, infants or special needs visitors. The presence of the wall to separate and protect this audience was a departure from the usual museum design of open access to exhibits, but one that worked well for Playspace visitors.
...and What Needed More Work
Once again, the location of this space, directly beyond the admissions desk, created a bottleneck on crowded days and discouraged further museum exploration. The Castle area was also too small to handle congestion and the Slide too wide, steep and fast with insufficient room at the base for safe landings. The storage benches with sliding doors seemed like a good idea, but seated visitors were repeatedly disturbed whenever anyone wanted to reach the stored contents. Playspace I had no on-site storage closet and the staff had to go all the way to the basement for some materials.
A pulley and bucket system lasted one week, as the bucket too often dropped down on someone's head! Even more hazardous were the swinging doors at the entrance to the Castle Crawlspace. These doors had to be bolted shut to prevent the frequent clobbering of passing toddlers.
These "nuts and bolts" problems were relatively easy to deal with compared to the more intangible issues of staffing and meeting visitor's needs. Integrating handicapped visitors with non-handicapped preschoolers proved difficult. Staff discovered that certain groups, such as mentally handicapped adults and non-handicapped preschoolers, could not easily share the space. Although both groups possessed similarities in cognitive or physical developmental levels, age, and physical size were barriers.
There were scheduling obstacles. The museum's reservation system was designed primarily for school-aged children; preschool groups were booked only one day a month. The resulting waiting list for preschool group visits required a reexamination of this policy. Further, the Jamaica Plain site was not open to the general public in the mornings although the mornings were "prime time" for families who wanted to come.
This growing audience of parents with very young children required new services, such as places to feed and change their babies. They also looked for familiar faces among staff. It soon became clear that these visitors would require a good deal of adaptation on our part. A long-standing discussion was begun concerning the degree to which the museum was willing and able to make the necessary changes.