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A Visit with Penny Wilson

July 6, 2012

I spent a bit more than an hour chatting with Penny Wilson this afternoon.  She took me on a short tour of one of the neighborhoods in which she works, and then we had a lovely conversation over coffee in a nearby cafe.

I met Penny at the Mile End underground stop, and we walked down the road where she showed me a project she was involved in which transformed a previously vacant lot into a lovely green space with a small climbing structure, beautiful flowers and landscaping, several small grassy hills for children to climb up and roll down, along with benches, tables, and a life-size wooden cow!  The cow was apparently connected to the Irish Dairy Farmers group which had supported the project.  It is interesting to note that this space is surrounded on four sides by apartment housing, with windows from the apartments facing onto the green space.  Take a look at the photos below.

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Here’s Penny giving a smile from inside the wooden play structure on the green space.  Notice how the structure is constructed of various size branches, unpolished, with bark still on the limbs, and quite beautiful in its own way.

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Isn’t this a brilliant idea…a play priority area.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we had more play priority areas?

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A long view of the green space, the transformed lot.  Apparently it had been a dog-defecation zone before it was landscaped and made to look as it does now, below.

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This lot is next in line to be transformed…you can see that it is currently completely empty except for grass and some scrub, and surrounded by apartment blocks, below.

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One of the major things that I took away from my conversation with Penny is the importance of working with the community, and really bringing the members of the community on board and building up community ownership of projects like the one above.  Another thing that I took away from my talk with Penny is how important it is to develop a network of connections and partnerships between different people and different groups and organizations within the community and within local government, in order to be successful in this sort of work.  That, and a whole lot of persistence, commitment, and energy.  Penny made it clear to me how crucial it is to really know the people, the social, economic, ethnic, and cultural dimensions of the families living in the neighborhoods where a project such as the above, or an adventure playground setting, or any sort of playwork-inspired play provision is attempted.  I was quite amazed with the level of dedication that she has put into her work to improve and benefit opportunities for not just the children in Tower Hamlets, but also for their parents, their families, and the community as a whole.

It was interesting to talk with Penny about play memory exercises, and the power of these sorts of exercises as a way of getting adults to think back to their own childhoods in order to remember their own joys and other emotions they experienced when they played.  I expressed to Penny that one of my frustrations, or challenges, is that I often have difficulty conveying to colleagues or other adults the importance of play for its own sake, as opposed to looking at play as the means to some other end, such as improved academics or other measurable, easily quantifiable outcomes.  I am interested in exploring further the play memory idea, as it seems like a very positive way of opening the door to meaningful conversations amongst other adults about the true value and potential impact of play.

I did visit Glamis Adventure Playground this afternoon after meeting with Penny, but I’m going to post my photos and reflections from Glamis tomorrow, as I am far too (pleasantly) exhausted at the moment from a day of great play and play conversation to post any more this evening.  If you haven’t ever seen photos of Glamis, trust me, you are in for one amazing treat!  Stay tuned…tomorrow evening.

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