Playgrounds for developing countries
Creativity. Collaboration. Innovation.
All are skills that can be developed through play, a mission supported by Playground Ideas USA. The nonprofit organization is directed by Jon Racek, a lecturer in the Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design department in Indiana University Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences.
His low-cost playground designs are built on-site by locals using colorful, sustainable materials and pictorial instructions. In the past few years, he's overseen the installation of slides, swings and monkey bars all over the world, including Peru, the Philippines and Kenya.
"In a lot of places where we work, the concept of play is totally foreign. At one point, we were working in a remote area of Thailand and, when we met with the community, they didn't even know what a 'playground' meant. They didn't have a word to describe it," he said. "But after that first day, the kids were just all over it. The one thing that connects people around the world is they want good things for their kids. That cuts across all sorts of ethnic, racial and class lines in a way that other things really can't."
But Racek's work isn't just all about fun -- the nonprofit distributes an educational curriculum to communities as well, which allows the newly installed equipment to be utilized for additional learning opportunities.
"It's a means to improve education," he said. "Our organization came about after seeing the state of schools in developing worlds, with no books, nothing useful for teaching. This is playground equipment, but there's another dimension."
An architect by training, Racek moved his family to Thailand several years ago, where he got involved with Playground Ideas USA. Now back in the U.S., he began teaching at IU last year and is getting his students involved in his work.
Centered on his research interests of appropriate technology and design in the developing world, Racek is planning a course next spring where students will design playground prototypes and -- if all goes well -- travel to Tanzania to see their designs come to life.
Recently named one of Building, Design and Construction magazine's "40 Under 40," Racek also gives lectures and training workshops for Playground Ideas USA around the world. He works with partner nonprofit organizations, who also commit to building playgrounds in developing countries. Together, the groups expect to build 65 playgrounds over the next two years.
To learn more about Racek's work, visit www.playgroundideasusa.org.