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More Than Just a Playground

They probably won’t realize it, but when more than 100 children swing, run and climb on the new playgrounds this fall at the Smith College Center for Early Childhood Education (CECE), they will be romping in an extensively and impressively planned environment, and one that reflects the colorful history of their surroundings.

Fort Hill mansion, the former Center for Early Childhood Education

Three new playground spaces will surround the new Center for Early Childhood Education, an 11,000-square-foot building off Lyman Street that will accommodate the infants, toddlers and preschoolers of people in the Smith community during daytime hours. The building, which replaces the school located in the former home known as the Fort Hill mansion, is scheduled for completion in August. Construction of the playgrounds will take place in the fall.

As expected, daily time on the playground is an essential component of the kids’ schedules at Fort Hill, regardless of the weather.

“We believe that being outside is important and the children at Fort Hill now go outside no matter what the weather, even if it is for a short time,” says Martha Lees, director of the CECE. “Our policy reflects the Norwegian saying: ‘There is never bad weather if you have good clothes.’ We did a lot of research and consulting to develop the policy, and the playground is important in supporting the philosophy of the program.”

The new CECE, to be completed in August

Nina Antonetti, a lecturer in Landscape Studies and a member of the playground design committee, began sketching the playground last spring with an appreciation of the area’s history. The mansion on the site, which formerly housed the CECE, was built in 1838 by Samuel Whitmarsh, father of the local silk industry, who opened the first silk mill in Northampton in 1834 after constructing a large silk worm cocoonery on his Fort Hill property.

“I wanted to reflect and honor some of the history of the site through the landscaping and playground,” explains Lees. “The history is fascinating.”

A possible theme for the playground, therefore, will build on the progression of caterpillars to butterflies, a combination of references to the site’s history and the evolutionary path of natural silk production, as well as to the school’s curriculum and popular story books of local children’s author Eric Carle.

A key element of the new playgrounds will be their naturalized environment, an attempt to reflect nature as much as possible, says Antonetti. Numerous studies have shown that children thrive in such surroundings.

Equally important to the playground’s design has been an effort to involve several college departments, such as Landscape Studies, engineering, architecture, Environmental Studies and the Botanic Garden in a collaborative process, says Antonetti. A dozen students in her course “Socializing Landscape” conducted an assessment of the former Fort Hill playgrounds last spring to compile information for the new playgrounds. This fall, some 50 of her students have already volunteered to assist with the design and implementation of the playgrounds.

“For my introductory courses in Landscape Studies, this collaboration works perfectly,” says Antonetti. “Everybody knows about playgrounds, after all.”

Of course, the needs of the playground users—the children—and their families, as well as school staff members, are foremost, and the playgrounds will be designed to encourage kids’ creativity, curiosity, education and development of motor skills. Several play structures will be available for swinging and climbing while tricycle paths will wend through the area, says Antonetti.

With its broad curriculum pertaining to the built environment, Smith is the ideal place to attempt this type of collaboration, Antonetti says. “Smith is the best undergraduate institution in the country for the study of landscape and the built environment, with many professors emphasizing activism. This project is one more testament to that. It’s a fitting project for Smith. And it’s a very visual one.”



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