Her young sons crawl the wrong way up playground slides and dangle from objects they’re not supposed to climb, and Megan Panzano is thrilled.
“We break rules now when we go to playgrounds,” says Panzano, assistant professor of architecture at the Graduate School of Design and director of the University’s Undergraduate Architecture Studies program. “One thing I’ve learned as a parent is how children can have strong, productive reactions, emotionally and physically, once we question the givens of rules and constraint when we play.”
Panzano has designed townhouses in South Boston, offices made of reclaimed materials in Charlestown, and a highway master plan in Somerville. Designing a playground had never crossed her mind until she and her husband found themselves, as new parents, immersed in a sea of literature on child psychology and development.
Panzano was intrigued especially by the idea of open-ended, unscripted play — activities without preset instructions. She warmed up to evidence that children develop in more complex and enriched ways when they are given fewer guidelines for play, allowing more room for exploration and imagination. She also dug into the tangential concept of “scaffolded parenting,” which posits that children grow to be more independent when given general frameworks for behavior, but not specific directives.
It wasn’t long before the architect was playing with these ideas in her sketchbook.
Over the course of a year, Panzano would devise “High Sees,” now open atop Arlington’s Learn to Grow preschool. The 1,500-square-foot rooftop space, which she calls a “perceptual playground,” is physically spare, absent of swing sets, metal slides, or other ephemera common to the American playground. Instead, geometric patterns of gray and blue rubber tiles dash across the ground and run up fence walls, resembling painted lines. The only other material used is gray plastic sheeting, a material used in the fabrication of speed boats, which makes up five platforms of different shapes and sizes, placed strategically around the playground.