Play space is a million-dollar idea

Photo Credit: Chicago Mayor's Office

Collaboration between UChicago students and Claremont Academy sixth graders wins $1.5 million city grant

Last spring University of Chicago lecturer Luke Joyner and his friend, Chicago Public Schools sixth grade teacher Layla Treuhaft-Ali, were lamenting that the school where Treuhaft-Ali teaches, Claremont  Academy, lacked a playground.

Joyner, long interested in children’s relationships to built spaces, asked Treuhaft-Ali if she wanted to collaborate on a class he was designing, “Children and Architecture.” Within months, UChicago students were collaborating with Claremont students to create plans for the expansive grass field that surrounds the school in the West Englewood neighborhood.  The two friends applied for a City of Chicago grant in August to fund the project and then largely forgot about the effort, thinking their idea was a longshot.

Treuhaft-Ali, a 2019 graduate of University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program, was in her kitchen grabbing a snack on the afternoon of Jan. 6th when she received the phone call from the mayor’s office notifying her that their play space idea was a winner.

“I started crying,” she said. “I was very happy.”

The plans from the class had won a $1.5 million city of Chicago grant – one of seven grants selected from a pool of more than 500 proposals and awarded from the Chicago Works Community Challenge, created to encourage new ideas for public places.

“What I like most about this was how meaningful an educational experience it was for the Claremont and College students,” Joyner said, “and the many ways our students and collaborators worked together at every stage.” He also noted the rare opportunity – “a chance to do something that will become real” – that the collaboration presented to the students without placing too much responsibility on their shoulders.

Instrumental in this balance were collaborators Erik Peterson, manager of family programs and student engagement at UChicago’s Smart Museum of Art, and Alex Enarson, AB’05, a playground designer and builder, as well as landscape architect Hana Ishikawa, and play researcher Kate Varey.

Lily pads made of wood

Joyner created the class, “Children and Architecture,” in the fall of 2021 with significant support from the College’s popular Chicago Studies program, which provides students with classes focused on the city and on experiential learning about the city.

The program’s objective is to establish genuine bonds with Chicago and enable students to have a positive impact in the city. One component of that effort is to create beneficial partnerships with organizations, researchers, and activists across the region.

Over six weeks in November and December, UChicago “Children and Architecture” students and Claremont students surveyed the entire school community to gauge preferences for using the land. Students from the College worked more closely with about 40 Claremont sixth graders to design three potential site plans and build prototype play equipment for pieces of the plans.

Claremont Academy students learned about outdoor play and learning areas, conducted surveys and observations of recess, and documented their results.
Claremont Academy students learned about outdoor play and learning areas, conducted surveys, and documented their results.

The grant, given to CPS, will be used to continue refining the three plans into one. All of them include large athletic fields, basketball courts and conventional uses for the land. Specific plans also call for picnic tables, winding paths, outdoor classroom space, grass mounds, even giant “lily pads” made of wood.

“There were so many opportunities where I feel like the kids really flourished,” Treuhaft-Ali said. “So many kids who never participated in class couldn’t stop raising their hands when Luke and his students came to class.”

Collaborating with college students made the younger students “feel important,” she said. The younger students took their roles seriously, and the community rallied around the project. Parents enthusiastically volunteered to chaperone during field trips and widely distributed the survey throughout the neighborhood.

The younger students learned about research techniques, creating surveys, and figuring out how to glean results, Treuhaft-Ali said. They learned about architecture.

“I’ve had a lot of kids come up to me and say, ‘I want to be an architect,’” she said. “A few months ago, they didn’t know what an architect was.”

Claremont Academy students participated in an orientation to building and build workshop with UChicago College students.
Claremont Academy students participated in an orientation to building and build workshop with UChicago College students.

Maggie Macpherson, a fourth year in the College who was one of the 16 students in Joyner’s class, said she found it fulfilling and exhilarating to work with the younger students in real time to decide how the school grounds would look. The grant was “kind of beside the point” of that collaboration, she said.

But, the possibility of winning the grant did lend an extra measure of excitement to the class, Macpherson acknowledged. Winning “means that the collaboration between the Claremont students and Layla, all of us—that work just gets to continue, deepen and become more complex, which is really exciting.”

“But I always had full faith in Layla and this project,” Macpherson said. “I was really more elated about the grant than surprised.”

 A UChicago College students helps a Claremont Academy student measure and build prototype play equipment.
A UChicago College student helps a Claremont Academy student measure and build prototype play equipment.

‘Importance of including residents’

Launched in May 2021, the Chicago Works Community Challenge allocated $10 million in $1.5 million allotments for “community-identified enhancements to city-owned properties,” including parks, libraries, and vacant lots. Upgrades to outdoor Chicago Public Schools facilities also were eligible for grants.

The challenge drew more than 500 proposals, which a selection committee of members across the city trimmed to 21 in the fall. Joyner and Treuhaft-Ali learned in October that the Claremont Academy proposal was one of three finalists in the city’s southwest region.

“That’s when the grant started to feel real,” Joyner recalled, although he still doubted then that the Claremont proposal would win.

Thousands of residents at regional community sessions evaluated proposals. In November, a Claremont Academy project team made its final pitch to the committee. “I realize the importance of including residents in this process every step of the way,” Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot said. “It's a job of government to deliver services and provide residents with resources, but above all else is our obligation to serve people as the people dictate. I can think of no better way to live up to that promise of public service, than by calling upon our community members.”

The six other projects that received funding include: modernizing playground equipment at Matthew Gallistel Language Academy; repairs and improvements to handball and racquetball complex and clubhouse at Rainbow Beach Park; multi-dimensional enhancements at Columbus Park; site improvements at Warren Park; building upgrades at Kelvyn Park and improvements to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library. 

Honoring collaboration

Mayor Lightfoot’s office reported that work is expected to start late this year or early in 2023. At Claremont, Treuhaft-Ali said she’s planning an after-school playground advisory committee of students. She’s optimistic that the empty field outside the school will become a thriving community play space.

“This process was about the students from Luke’s class and Claremont coming together and collaborating,” she said. “I hope that will be honored.”

Her students appear ready to make sure the plan turns into the play area they helped design. On the morning after the formal announcement, she was talking with students about the project.

“They were saying, ‘we gotta make sure we do this,’” Treuhaft-Ali said. “They’re going to hold people accountable.”

Photo Credit: Chicago Mayor's Office

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