Landscape architecture class creates recycled-material playscapes for CDRC
By: Glenys Young
What can you do with some old cardboard boxes, empty water bottles and packing tape? A group of Texas Tech University students can build a world of imagination.
Twenty-one sophomore landscape architecture students did just that last week, thanks to a class project to design and create recycled-material playscapes for the preschool classes at the Christine DeVitt and Helen DeVitt Jones Child Development Research Center (CDRC). After installing their creations on the playground Thursday (Oct. 17), the college students sat back and watched as the preschoolers got down to some serious playtime.
Muntazar Monsur, an assistant professor of landscape architecture in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, said the project gave his students an opportunity many professional landscape architects don't get during their student lives – the chance to see how their designs are used.
In planning their playscapes, the students first spent a day observing the preschoolers on the existing playground. One thing students found striking was that many of the children really didn't interact with the installed play structures, opting instead for movable toys or playing with other children.
His students incorporated these findings into their designs.
"Their goal was to create a more dynamic experience and engage children in different ways," Monsur said. "So, if it's a cardboard castle, it's not just a castle – it should do something more."
Each student formed their own idea, sketched it out and then reviewed it in class, where other students were able to help in the brainstorming and problem-solving processes. But at the end of the day, it was each project's designer who had final say. Monsur said this embodied the assignment's secondary goal – teaching project-management skills.
A third focus was the importance of sustainability in landscape architecture and finding inexpensive design solutions. To this end, students used all recycled materials – some items they found and many they collected from the Texas Tech Recycling Center.
"You don't need to incur a lot of costs to create valuable experiences," Monsur noted.
Using mostly cardboard, the students had to make their playscapes usable: not only stable under the weight of a small child – for those intended to be crawled or stood upon – but also safe enough for preschoolers to play with, meaning they needed to be held together primarily with tape, rather than metal fastenings or staples, which could pose a risk.
Some of the students put in extra effort to make their projects bright and colorful, although Monsur notes that wasn't a requirement.
"At the preschool age, it's less about appearance and more about play affordance," he said. "But we need to put forth efforts for children. We need to be creative for their experience. They don't design for themselves, so it's our job to design for them. It leaves a lot of room for our creativity."
As the students discovered, the most creative designs in the studio don't always translate well to their intended sites because of things in the natural environment they may not have considered.
A large cardboard-and-wood frame stood on end, displaying 63 plastic bottles, each filled with either red, green, yellow or blue liquid. As it swayed in the breeze, its designer ran to catch it.
"I didn't think about wind," the student said, rushing to secure his project. He ended up tying it to the fence, propped against a plastic crate and a log.
"The idea was very nice, the experience of light and color," Monsur commented. "But once you build it, it's very heavy. Often, you'll go to a site thinking one thing and find other challenges there. That's one of the greatest learning experiences in design education."
Another challenge some of the students faced was a slight slope on the ground.
"Working in the studio, the students' design assumption was that the surface was flat," Monsur said. "Out here, the surface is not completely flat, so they had to make adjustments to account for that."
One project looked like a giant cardboard Plinko game, with ping pong balls bouncing between Styrofoam blocks, through plastic-bottle tubes and into plastic cups. It took 10-12 hours to build, estimated designer Damian Soto, a sophomore landscape architecture major from El Paso.
Observing the CDRC children impacted his design, Soto said. Because of their preference for brightly colored bicycles, he added neon tape. Because he saw how closely they played with one another, he incorporated multiple starting points so several children could use his project at the same time.
"I wanted to make something they could get their hands on," he said, "something that encourages a lot of collaborative play and also a little competition, which isn't a bad thing."
He said he was excited to see how the children played with his project, "but also a little scared," he laughed. "As long as they have fun, though, I'm happy."
As the 3- to 6-year-olds arrived on the playground, there was an initial hush while they curiously examined their new playthings, but it wasn't long before the yard was filled with squeals and giggles. "I win!" and "Look at this!" rang out in all directions.
Three little girls headed straight for a cardboard box castle, while one boy climbed straight into the wooden outline of a boat. A line quickly formed at the PVC-pipe monkey bars. Two boys hopped cautiously between black plastic boxes, avoiding the red, orange and yellow paper-chain lava.
For preschool teacher Casey Garcia, it was a welcome sight.
"Everything out here reinforces what we're doing in our class," she said. "I see science, tons of STEM activity, lots of gross motor and fine motor skills, dramatic play is in here, too. So really, they're hitting all of the main components of our key developmental indicators we use here at the center.
"I'm also noticing how engaged the children are. The No. 1 thing we look for is for children to be engaged in activities. When children are fully engaged in play is when the most learning happens, so I would love to see these stay. I see so much self-directed learning happening."
As the children played, the college students observed and occasionally adjusted their projects as needed. Soto took notes as a group of boys bickered over the Plinko balls.
"There's that old adage of, you give a kid a huge toy in a box and they want to play with the box," Garcia laughed. "I think this completely opens their eyes to things they can do on their own and things that they can create. Again, this just hits so many STEM activities for them. Engineering some new playthings absolutely opens their eyes to being able to pretend and extend their play through things they can find anywhere."
The funny part, she said, is that the children will value the help they get from the college students without realizing the relationship goes both ways.
"They're in a wonderful position where they get to work with college students all day long," Garcia said. "Even if they don't know how much they're helping those college students learn, grow and find ways to be successful in their field, they're getting to do that. To them, this is just another great opportunity that these college students have come to play with them and give them some great things to do."
CONTACT: Muntazar Monsur, Assistant Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, Texas Tech University at (806) 834-2994 or firstname.lastname@example.org