FDR Park is getting a new pop-up play space designed by kids

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Sky Chandler tests a swing in FDR Park

Sky Chandler, 19, a member of the play space’s build team, tests a swing built by community members in FDR Park in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)p

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Each element in FDR’s newest pop-up play space is inspired by a verb: traverse, swing, slide, balance.

The South Philadelphia play space at the park’s Clubhouse Lawn was designed by the local community of kids who will eventually use it. They’re also the ones who will help build it.

“It’s so important to give kids fun, safe, engaging places for them to play and develop crucial development skills — like collaboration, communication, natural exploration,” said Rebecca Poole, the marketing and branding coordinator at Fairmount Park Conservancy.

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Janine Wang tests balance beams built by community members at FDR Park
Janine Wang, a building hero educator with Tiny WPA, tests balance beams built by community members at FDR Park in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The site of the Anna C. Verna Playground broke ground this week, and the project is expected to be completed by summer 2023.

The pop-up space, meanwhile, will be ready for playtime within the next two weeks to ensure that, while the new Anna C. Verna Playground is being constructed, kids can still have fun.

When the pop-up is complete, it won’t look like your typical playground.

The play structures will be mostly built from natural wood materials, including some tree trunks that were once in the ground at the park. The area will feature a balance beam made from a log, along with a double-wide swing that hangs from a tree, a moveable seesaw, colorful picnic tables for socializing, and more.

“We have a different type of play that’s more accessible, quicker to realize, and really can grow out of a grassroots neighborhood sense of how they want that public space to be used,” said Alex Gilliam, co-founder of Tiny WPA, the partner behind the project.

Tiny WPA teaches people how to build and make items that are needed in their neighborhoods — like benches and flower boxes at community gardens or monuments honoring unrecognized heroes. The team collaborated directly with young Philadelphia residents to come up with play space ideas over the course of two workshops.

Community volunteers work to construct a play space at FDR Park in South Philadelphia
Community volunteers work to construct a play space at FDR Park in South Philadelphia under the instruction of the Tiny WPA team on July 12, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The focus was on how kids want to use the space rather than the actual items themselves. The makeshift nature of the play space allowed them to experiment a bit and get creative.

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“This temporary thing might even shift people’s perceptions of what play is possible,” said Gilliam. “There’s room for it to grow and change a bit as we see how people are playing.”

The project’s design and construction are unique, said Ausra Musset, a project manager at the conservancy.

Alex Gilliam directs a community build team at FDR Park
Alex Gilliam, co-founder of Tiny WPA, directs the community build team at the play space site in FDR Park in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“There’s something really special about it,” said Musset. “Being able to have ownership over a space that you helped build and participate in that process has been really exciting.”

According to Fairmount Park Conservancy, only 1 in 4 kids gets the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. The space is part of a larger investment from the conservancy to create more opportunities for play at FDR Park.

“I think as adults, we often don’t look at play as learning,” said Gilliam of Tiny WPA. “Yet it’s one of the most fundamental ways that we explore. We build relationships, we learn confidence.”

For the play space, the building process also allows for those learning opportunities.

A community-built play space

Construction officially kicked off on Tuesday, July 12. A group of workers and volunteers gathered at the top of the hill at the Clubhouse Lawn surrounded by plywood and power tools.

Noah Drury was one of them — he’s 12 years old and interested in being an architect. He’s never worked with a drill, but he was eager to learn.

“I’d like to learn how to use the power equipment, like the saws and stuff,” he said. “I just think it’s good to know how to screw something into a wall.”

A log that will be used as a suspended balance beam
A log that will be used as a suspended balance beam or “battering ram,” per request of the community during the design process of the FDR Park play space. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

By his side were Tiny WPA employees, Sky Chandler and Janine Wang, who were supporting volunteers and helping to build. Wang, a woodworker and educator for the nonprofit’s Building Hero Project, said she’s impressed by the natural objects, like trees, being incorporated into the design.

“Play spaces shouldn’t be sterile,” she said. The natural design will allow kids to get “a little bit more in touch with getting dirty” and serve as a reminder that the materials we use come from somewhere, added Wang.

The pop-up play space will supplement FDR’s current playground, which isn’t going anywhere.

Noah Drury uses a power tool on a wood project at FDR Park
Noah Drury, 12, learned to use power tools at the community play space build with Tiny WPA in FDR Park in South Philadelphia on July 12, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Volunteers can stop by to help build on the days listed below. No experience is required and all ages are welcome.

Friday, July 15
11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Saturday, July 16
10 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Monday, July 18 – Wednesday, July 20
11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

“This is a great opportunity to have fun, learn a new skill, connect with some new people, and make a difference in this corner of Philadelphia,” said Gilliam.

The play space’s grand opening will take place Saturday, July 23, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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