By Catherine Fox, For the AJC, Friday, December 18, 2009
It’s recess at Bethune Elementary School. The first-graders file past a big storage locker filled with blue blocks cut in a variety of sizes and shapes. Once given a piece, they repair to the play area. Then all joy breaks loose.
One little girl sticks a long tube into the hole of a doughnut-shaped piece, and presto, she’s a singer on a stage crooning into the microphone. In other hands, the tube becomes a limbo stick or a horse to ride. Several children work together to construct a slide.
It’s difficult to tell whose smile is wider, the boy building a castle or Cynthia Gentry, who introduced the Vine City school to the Imagination Playground in a Box, and raised the lion’s share of the money to acquire it.
“I like things that let kids find what’s inside them,” she says, surveying the activity. “Childhood should be about exploration.”
Gentry, 54, is Atlanta’s Pied Piper — or is it Energizer Bunny? — of play. The sunny Atlanta native has a knack for inspiring people with her creative vision. She also possesses the skills to implement it, including a relentless will.
“Cynthia is easy to work with, but she has a spine of steel,” says Dianne Harnell Cohen, Atlanta’s commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. “She never lets obstacles get in her way.”
The two partnered to win Atlanta a Playful City designation from KaBOOM!, a national advocacy organization, and Gentry continues to help the city maintain the designation standards and consults on projects through her organization, the Atlanta Task Force on Play.
The treehouse at Camp Twin Lakes, for which she was creative director, is a great example of that vision. Gentry had initially approached the camp, which serves children and young adults with serious illnesses and disabilities, about adding a play space. They batted around other ideas and landed on the treehouse.
Gentry framed her vision by consulting with experts — the campers, who made drawings of their ideal treehouse — and researching the architectural genre.
She knew that wheelchair accessibility was paramount. “These kids, so much of their lives are focused on what they can’t do,” she says.
She envisioned it hidden in the trees, with enclosed and screened areas and, per the kids’ requests, fans to keep them cool, a swirly slide and hidden trapdoors.
“Most important was that the treehouse be magical and give the kids a sense of wonder,” she says.
Gentry presented her ideas to Lord, Aeck & Sargent, the architecture firm that had designed the camp. Senior associate Amy Leathers came up with a design that filled the bill: a rustic octagonal structure with a lookout and a “green” roof.
Gentry asked the Savannah College of Art and Design if students might be willing to carve totem poles to punctuate the path to the treehouse. Professor Allen Peterson’s introductory sculpture class went to Rutledge to see the camp.
“We were all blown away by the place and the mission,” he says.
Spurred by the cause and the opportunity to place their work in public, the students exceeded expectations, he says. By turns, colorful, wacky and mysterious, the sculptures add excitement to the journey through the woods. Camp director Dan Mathews reports the campers and their parents so love the new hideout that he jokes about renaming the facility Camp Treehouse.
Gentry, who has a grown son, has long volunteered on behalf of children. She first got involved in play in 2003, when she headed up the Virginia-Highland community’s effort to construct a memorial playground for the Cunard family, after the mother and two children died when a tree fell on their car.
The project, in John Howell Park, ignited an abiding passion and a national reputation. KaBOOM! founder Darrell Hammond calls on her to speak around the country and has included her among the 16 advisers who serve as the organization’s sounding board.
Gentry was tickled when a friend dubbed her “wonder expert.” But, as she will readily tell you, play is serious business.
Battling the helicopter-parent syndrome and the reduction of recess in schools, early-learning specialists argue that self-directed activity — free play, if you will — is critical to a child’s development. Studies show that it promotes problem-solving and social skills.
Imagination Playground in a Box, designed by New York architecture firm Rockwell Group, was developed with this in mind. Bethune’s principal, RoseMary Hamer, can attest that it works.
“I’ve been quite amazed,” she says. “Their imaginations have expanded, they’re sharing. I see a lot of discussion. I’ve also seen quieter children open up and be more expressive.”
Gentry thinks there should be — and could be — more. And she’s decided to stir the pot. Working with Georgia Tech professor Claudia Rebola Winegarden, she is planning “Playable 2010,” an international design competition to encourage creative thinking about play spaces and equipment.
This is the first such effort since the Museum of Modern Art’s “Play Sculpture Competition” in 1954, which Gentry first learned about from the 2005 book “American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space.”
Intrigued, she looked up author Susan Solomon, who has since become a fan.
“I have tremendous respect for what she’s doing,” Solomon says. “There are an awful lot of people who just talk. Few take the next step to actually do something about it.”
The first phase, which began Dec. 16, solicits children’s drawings. The design portion, to launch next spring, includes opportunities to plan play spaces for specific sites — the Beltline and Woodruff Park, among them — which will actually be built. Is that Gentry’s sneaky way of adding to the city’s inventory?
“Cynthia is the perfect example of what the passion of one person can do,” park official Cohen says.
For more information on the project, go to: www.playabledesign.org.