The Ghana International Design Studio’s mission was collaborative design of play experiences for adolescents and families in a fast growing city that has few urban open spaces. The interdisciplinary studio included students from landscape architecture, architecture, industrial design, graphic design, and art+design. The project is unique because of interdisciplinary and collaborative work engaging American students and Ghanaians. Immersive field study across Ghana familiarized students with Ghanaian culture, land values, and design traditions prior to engaging in final project work. The studio worked with Ghanaian stakeholders, including children, in the development of prototypes for play experiences to be tested and improved through the Playtime in Africa site. The landscape architect’s involvement was imperative to the success of the studio. As emerging landscape architects, we were able to communicate and lead projects having an in-depth understanding of landscape issues while offering a wide range of socially and contextually appropriate consultations.
The purpose of the Ghana International studio was to provide study abroad opportunities that acquainted students and faculty of system wide institutions with the history, culture, and customs of Ghana, and prospectively prepare culturally competent students for global citizenship. Students benefited greatly from the deep pool of goodwill and friendships generated by the Ghanaian people and easily merged with the normal life-style and culture of this unique African country. From June 26th to July 19th, 2014, the studio collaborated with Africana Studies and Ghanaian scholars, who taught a workshop on Ghanaian Culture and Society. This workshop, involving immersive study of issues in a range of Ghanaian settings, served as an intensive orientation to the major forces impacting Ghanaian life. The workshop offered an introduction to themes to be explored throughout the course. Of the 24 total students in the joint Design and Africana Studies course, 16 represented all departments within design and the School of Architecture. The work included was produced during an intensive period of action project development on the Playtime in Africa site. The Ghana International Studio provided design students with opportunities for intensive creative work in a culture other than their own. If designers want to become culturally responsive problem solvers, living and working in more than one culture enables the overall development of skills to work in different contexts. First-hand experience with difference is essential to this process and can help designers function more productively in their chosen professions. This studio was designed to nurture this educational process and better prepare design students interested in engaging the world. The focus of the 2014 studio was a partnership with the Mmofra Foundation and design collaboration on their Playtime In Africa site in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.“Mmofra” is an Akan word meaning “children”, and the foundation works to champion the need for accessible and engaging public space for children in Ghana. The studio engaged in conceptual and action projects to better understand the design issues facing children in African cities, as well as strategies for addressing them through collaborative and multidisciplinary work. In Creating Better Cities with Children and Youth (Earthscan, 2008), David Driskell uses international case studies to illustrate the tools available to empower designers and children to work together on issues of the built environment. The studio created a site evaluation worksheet modeled after Driskell’s “Self-evaluation of your city as a place for young people” and used this worksheet to evaluate children’s activity in Ghanaian urban spaces including the Playtime in Africa site. Ghana’s urban spaces include streets, open air markets, plazas, courtyards, and schoolyards. Of these, the utilitarian use of the streets and markets represented the busiest urban spaces. The majority of children’s activity occurred in streets and school yards. In The Human Centered Design Toolkit, IDEO offers a range of engagement tools to prompt cross-cultural dialogue with people to better define their needs and interests. Group and individual interview techniques were adapted from the toolkit to engage Ghanaian children (intermediate school students ranging between 10-13 y/o) in a discussion of their favorite places to play and the activities they enjoyed the best. Football (soccer) and a local game called Ampe were the most popular activities. However, they also shared an interest in local board games, clapping and music games as well. The Playtime in Africa site is located on private land in the Dzorwulu Area of Accra. Accra is the capital of Ghana and home to 4 million people. The site is a 2 acre section of the historic home of Efua Sutherland. The private home and gardens are separated from the Playtime in Africa site by a drain. The entire site is surrounded by an 8 foot tall wall with two gates. The park site is generally flat and predominantly in agricultural production. Large trees occupy the middle of the site and provide shade and shelter for Mmofra Foundation activities. The site is secured when not in use and is maintained by a small group of family and foundation friends and associates. The foundation regularly engages around 90 children on site. Activities include arts and humanities activities, performing arts, and educational support. Children who use the site include neighborhood children but also children from across Accra. Weekend and bi-weekly planned activities make up the majority of site use. The inspiration for many of the play activities and elements were drawn from several cultural themes experienced on the trip, themes revealed in craft villages, traditional ceremonies, cultural motifs, and landscapes of Ghana. The design solutions create a energetic space where children can learn and reflect on their culture. Anansi Okra (Spider’s Village) revealed the value of developing a relationship with nature. It expressed the importance of learning and utilizing resources nature provides, such as herbs and fruit. Craft villages such as Cedi Beads, the pottery village, and traditional ceremonies, such as dances, reflected the importance of cultural values and their role in passing history and life lessons to the next generation. Incorporating cultural values within design elements help children feel comfortable and connected with the space. Student projects included designing and fabricating play and learning elements, conceptualizing and illustrating potential play and learning components, and creating an advocacy tool for the Mmofra Foundation. While Ghanaian culture is heavily focused on academics rather than play in a child’s life, the studio focused on an interplay between these two areas of a child’s life. In doing so the studio incorporated many Ghanaian cultural elements to provide restorative and imaginative environments while providing learning opportunities. Of the solutions, a double sided seat was constructed from a recycled wire spool. The idea was to create reading nooks for kids to sit, somewhat separated from their peers and focus on reading a book in a relaxed and comfortable place, such as the grove of trees on site. Ghanaians are naturally resourceful, the reading nooks provide an example to children on how recycling can take place. Other student created artifacts included design solutions focused on sensory learning through the use of cultural motifs, cognitive development, and kinetic learning. These designs support an enriched quality of play that allows children to have liberation of free play and imagination. These elements include a natural instrument that is multi-functional and ties the child to the musical traditions of Ghana. This and other designs incorporate both natural and synthetic elements that provide a range of teaching options and developmental needs of children. In addition, they provide sensory learning that supports cognitive development for children of all ages. These goals and objectives of the studio work and the Foundation’s efforts were captured on a video produced by a student. The video serves as tool for advocacy and funding efforts for the foundation. After designing and constructing design prototypes, children that use the park came in to test the play and learning artifacts. The prototypes were very successful and the children remained engaged throughout their time in the park. Design interventions that spoke to Ghanaian culture were the most successful and often inspired the children to play other traditional Ghanaian games, most of which took place in large groups, in-between activities. Parents had an opportunity to talk with each other while their children played in a safe and engaging space. By creating spaces and activities for children we provided space for all ages in which to gather as a community.
Anna Chatwell, Sarah Dickerson, Taylor Hamer, Stephanie Heimstead, Ruoqing Ke, Natalie Seibel, Zakiya Toney, Carla Blackmon, Margaret Mayer