Guest Blog: Inspiring imaginative play through reading

In 2015, we collaborated with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) in Prince George’s County, Md., to design a storybook-themed playground that encourages fun and learning. Today, we’re happy to have Brenda Iraola, landscape architect supervisor with MNCPPC, as our guest blogger discussing how she and her team created the literacy playground.

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The idea for creating a literacy playground at Watkins Regional Park was genius because the theme was already based on the original storybook, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum written in 1899.  Throughout the design, I promote reading the book as much as possible. We used actual pages from the storybook and put them on sign posts at each of the six design areas within the playground—Dorothy’s Farm House, Munchkin Land, the Emerald Forest, the Emerald City of Oz, the Balloon Escape and the Ruby Red Shoes. Another designer on my team, Chris Colvin, had the idea to add language to the book-page signs that states “Read the story to find out what happens next.” We continually used this concept to encourage children to read the story so they could relate to the playground and find the fun in reading.

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We inspired children to understand the original storybook by using real graphics from the book for the characters of Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodsman, Scarecrow and Toto. The images were reproduced onto play panels where holes were cut out to allow children to actually become the characters and create a photo opportunity. This is just one way we help bring the storybook to life for children. Additionally, the entry has a long Yellow Brick Road, which passes under a rainbow archway where children begin their play experience. The colors from the rainbow archway filter down onto the children on sunny days, and we hear them saying things like, “Look I am green and now I am red. I’m a rainbow!”

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One of the other designers, Rene Albacete, decided to add some funny reading opportunities throughout the play environment. Kids and their families find surprise text on Toto’s Doghouse that reads “Dear Dorothy, I took the shoes. Find your own way home.” We added names to the balloon escape play equipment to identify which balloon was from the Kansas State Fair. We even designed “OZ” into the rubber safety surfacing outside of the Emerald City of Oz castle. I also added educational reading opportunities like the Word Search game in which children can find all kinds of words relating to the Oz storybook. Some other reading opportunities include Aunt Em’s mailbox, Toto’s Doghouse, the Chicken Coop and the directional sign at the entrance that points visitors to the Yellow Brick Road or Ruby Red Shoes.

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A lot of parents and children who visit the playground say they are so excited about the space, and talked about going to the library to check out the book to read the full story. Parents say they are going to enjoy teaching their children that reading a book is fun in a day when so much information is prepared electronically.

Case Study: Teaching kids as they play

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Client: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), Upper Marlboro, Md.

Designers: Brenda Iraola, landscape architect supervisor; Chris Colvin, landscape architect; and Rene Albacete, landscape architect

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Goal: Create a storybook playground design for Watkins Regional Park based on the original Oz storybook to encourage learning through play

Solution: Kids and families can experience Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s Kansas farm, Dorothy’s house, Munchkin Land, the poppy field, the Emerald City and Dorothy’s attempt to get home via hot air balloon. Even more, Dorothy’s ruby slippers were adapted to be playground slides! The design also includes a unique experience for the children to become the characters of the storybook. Brenda and her team used play panels containing graphics of the drawn storybook characters—Dorothy and Toto, the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow—with cut-outs for children’s faces to allow them to become a part of the story.

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Read more about how the Wizard of Oz-themed playground at Watkins Regional Park has become the main attraction for visitors all over Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.