Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Smith Memorial Playground
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Marketing Manager Raina Searles and Community Engagement Manager Tenara Calem chat with Rebecca Dhondt, the Director of Visitor Programs and Fun at Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse, an inclusive space for unstructured free play for children. The three of them discuss how Smith has had to pivot their focus during coronavirus, why children (and adults) need to play now more than ever, and what the future of Smith will look like amidst a global pandemic. To learn more about Smith you can visit their website at https://smithplayground.org/
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles, and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Tenara: Today, we’re talking to Rebecca Ddondt, the Director of Visitor Programs and Fun at Smith Memorial Playground and Play House located in East Fairmount Park. The mission of Smith Memorial Playground Playhouse is to provide and promote opportunities for unstructured free play for children. In the past, we partnered with Smith on our 2019 High Pressure Fire Service show Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr. House! By the Beserker Residents, and we participated in their 2019 Play-a-Palooza. While we are not able to join them for this year’s event, we look forward to catching up to see how they’ve been during this time. Welcome, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for having us. We’re excited!
Tenara: So we usually, because this is Happy Hour on the Fringe, it technically is 5PM, so let’s all go around and say–.
Raina: We are actually recording during happy hour,.
Tenara: Literally actually recording during happy hour. So what are we all drinking?
Rebecca: You know, I have to confess that I don’t drink except for maybe twice a year and I drink like a kalua and cream or a brandy Alexander. That’s like a very chocolaty girlie drink. What I like.
Tenara: That sounds incredible. But what are you drinking right now?
Rebecca: Right now. Yeah, just water.
Tenara: Oh, amazing. And what about what about you Raina?
Raina: I am also having water, but I had both hot tea and iced tea earlier. So a really diverse day for me in terms of my liquids.
Tenara: I mean, I’m also drinking just water. So really, we’re all doing well where we’re hydrated.
Rebecca: We’re hydrated.
Tenara: OK, great. Well, Rebecca, we know each other pretty well, you and I. And I love what Smith does. But can you tell us a little bit about what Smith has been up to since coronavirus and quarantine all started?
Rebecca: Oh, so much. So much. We have obviously had to close the playground. The playhouse is under construction right now, so it was already closed. But everything onsite has been shut down. But Smith has pivoted beautifully. We are continuing to support grant funded community programs in different ways as well as we have online programing. I guess the most accessible thing for most of your listeners is our daily play schedule. Every day there’s just a very simple theme and different activities for your day. So instead of like, oh, what am I going to do with my kids today? It’ll be like, oh, today is a pizza day. So maybe it’ll be like books about pizza, some games you could play with pizza, some crafts you could do with pizza, you know, quiet time activities, mealtime activities. Obviously, you know, eating pizza would be the thing to do on that day. But rather than getting overwhelmed with, you know, here’s a list of 5000 different options, trying to make it as simple and easy to do every day. So if you’re just like, oh, what do I do? It’s– it’s time to go outside. I don’t know what to do outside. Just you could click on what’s outside for that, even for that day. So those are every day Monday through Friday. We post those, although we did we have put a pause on our online content the last week or so in reflection of solidarity with all the protests that are going on. We want to give everyone the chance to focus on that because it’s important and that’s what we’ve been doing. We’re doing a lot of support with local preschools. The whole, you know, early childhood education is kind of in crisis through this because there’s no way that people can really come back to work if they don’t have child care for their children. And there doesn’t seem to be any recognition that if you’re going to have half the children because they have have social distance, that would mean half the income for those providers whichthey can’t survive on. Obviously. So we have a wonderful grant called Slide to Success, and we’ve been doing a lot of talking with them, trying to support them as much as we can. We’re just did a partnership with Treehouse Books, which if you guys don’t know them, you want some free books, they’re awesome, awesome organization. And a lot of these preschool teachers are teaching from home, teaching through Zoom, trying to read books to their kids. Maybe they’re a great preschool teacher, but you don’t necessarily have 100 preschool books in your house, so maybe you don’t have preschoolers. So they– we partnered with them to provide a bunch of preschools with books for the teacher so they’ll have materials to read to their kids.
Raina: So yeah, I am really curious about that because, you know, so much of our podcast is geared at, you know, how this is affecting artists and adults and people, you know, kind of over 18 in general. But there’s so much going on that, you know, has an effect on our youngest generation, whether it’s thinking about food scarcity and not being able to get their usual meals through school or stay at home orders and not being able to socialize in the same way. And, you know, especially in a city, not everyone has a yard. And so Philadelphia’s parks have remained open for the most part. But, you know, it’s a very different experience. So I’m curious what your thoughts are on like, how, everything that’s happening right now, just in terms of the quarantine. We haven’t even touched the protest yet. But you know what effect that has on today’s kids?
Rebecca: I mean, I can’t really speak to I’m not an expert on the virus or on diversity or, you know, I’m just going to kind of throw the protests in there because it’s all experiences that these kids are having. That’s impacting their lives. And I think that, you know, where Smith comes in and where we can speak to most authoritatively is really about play. And so I think that, you know, the thing that’s really important is to understand how critical play is for children, that play is how they process the world around them and how they answer the questions that they have and explore the emotions that they’re having. And those emotions are often not pretty right now. And things that are happening aren’t pretty right now. It’s it’s just the kids are sad and frightened and confused, just like grown ups right now and play is the hard work that they need to do to be able to work through those feelings. And kids are playing in ways that might make parents feel uncomfortable, like they might, you know, segregate their stuffed animals and be mean to the ones that are one kind of color. They might, you know, play hospital and a bunch of their animals die because of coronavirus. They might, you know, be doing all these things that are, you know, are scary, you know, but that’s OK, because that’s how they’re figuring it out. And so, you know, for the parents, I think that, you know, your job really your first job is take care of yourself, because if you’re so stressed out and you’re so overwhelmed and you’re so, you know, you’re so you’re on the edge of tears like you’re not going to be able to listen to your kids, you know. So to make sure you do take that time for yourself and– and, you know, go and lock yourself in the bathroom, if that’s if you have a toddler. And that’s the only time you have that. We all have. I mean, I’ve been there. I have three kids of my own. So, you know, and get to a place where you can– you can listen to your kids, and listening to them may mean just playing with them, especially if they’re younger. So they may not be able to really talk to you about what they’re feeling. They may not even understand how they’re feeling. And frankly, I don’t really even understand half of how I’m feeling right now. So, you know, just listen to them, let them play and don’t judge their play. Have an understanding that their play is the way that they’re building resilience.The play is the way that they’re processing all this stuff that’s happening and allowing them that space, you know, to do that.
Tenara: So do you feel like. I mean, I I used to work in education and I think like, early childhood education specifically, and I think that there was a growing movement among early childhood educators about encouraging a direct approach about talking with your kids about race. And I think that in some ways like that, that is really that’s really angled at talking with white kids about race. Right. Because like kids of color, black children in the United States, like they are painfully aware of what race is and they experience it on a daily basis. But I’m curious, like particularly for FringeArts audience members and fans and artists who might have young kids who are asking a lot of questions about what’s happening right now, or perhaps they see what’s going on in this country reflected in their play. If you think that if you have any suggestions about ways to handle these questions in a developmentally appropriate way, but that also doesn’t shy away from the fact that we have a serious problem in this country.
Rebecca: Well, I think the you know, the shot and just to build off what you’re saying, like, my number one thing is don’t pretend it’s not happening. Like kids aren’t stupid. They may be even little kids. They’re not stupid. Like they know something is happening and you can’t shelter them. It completely, but at the same time, the second thing I would say is meet them where they are and know your child and every child is different. And the you know, you may not be an expert on a lot of things, but I’m an expert on my own child’s right. So you may be able to go to a particular child and have a conversation with them and they’ll be like, oh, OK. And then I have one child who’s extremely anxious. And if I told that same story to that child that they would not sleep for a week, you know. So you do have to know your child, know where their level is and meet them where they are. And sometimes it’s hard to know what is appropriate for different ages. There’s a great Web site. It’s called SocialJusticeBooks.Org. And it’s kind of like broken out by age. It’s all like social justice in this kind of topics, but it’s broken out by ages and stages, which is really, really helpful for parents to let it kind of know where to start. Another thing I do just sort of as a knee-jerk with any kid on any topic is make sure you know what they’re asking you. Or make sure you know what they want before you answer. So sort of reflect back what they say. So if they say, you know, if they say how, how to how how come, you know, my cat just had kittens. They may not be asking you to explain the entire birds and the bees to them, you know, like, oh, I’m just going to sit down and talk to them for three hours. You know, instead, you might say, oh, well, why do you think your cat had kittens. Oh, I don’t know. Because I thought she would have puppies. And then the answer you give is, oh, well, cats have kittens and dogs have puppies. And it is now satisfied, do you know what I mean, what I’m saying? So like I think that a lot of times we– this is a wonderful thing. I mean, when I was a child, it was like I say, jump. You say how high? You have no will. You have no thoughts. You have no right to have any, like information that I, as the powerful adult does not give you. And we want to empower children. We want to respect them and we want to listen to them. But we also don’t want to overload them, you know, so it is a balance between giving them what they need and meeting them where they are. And another thing, I think, you know, I said don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Another thing I think that’s really important is don’t let fear stop you from talking to your kids, because I know that a lot of times when especially when it comes to issues of race, you know, I’m a person who’s white, who’s privileged. Like, I don’t know what to say. I don’t have the authority to to. That’s not my experience. So how can I say anything to my kids, you know, like or if I say I’ll say it wrong and then they’ll say it wrong to somebody else. And then I’ve done I’ve done something wrong and I’ve like put the wrong idea in their head and, you know, and it’s like you freeze. You get, you just, you just stop. You don’t do anything because you’re afraid to do the wrong thing, you know? And I think that we can’t do that anymore, you know? We can’t be– we can, we can do better. We have to do better and we can do better. But that process is scary and it means making mistakes and being willing to own them and being willing to model that for your kids. Like, oh, well, I said this, but I really meant that or oh, that, you know, you know, like growing with them, learning with them. And that’s a great model you can give to your kids and always say to parents, you have to be the perfect parent. You just have to be the good enough parent. And to me, that’s a good enough parent is the parent that tries and keeps track. And I think, you know, I made a mistake, that’s OK. I’m going to do it again. And that could be I’ve ever made it could be, you know, talk about racism or it could be I’ve never made a quiche. And I want to make sure it’s not a total disaster. But that’s a way to try it again. Or I really you know, I grew up with my parents yelling at me and I try really hard not to yell at my kids, but sometimes I yell at my kids. But I say I’m sorry and I shouldn’t yell to you, you know, and you just keep trying to do better. And I think that everybody just has that attitude of, like, I’m gonna be open. I’m going to try to explain these things. I have to do the best that I can and be willing to, like, be told, oh, well, that wasn’t the best thing. But then say, OK, well, that wasn’t the best thing. But now we know something better.
Raina: Yeah, I think that’s a really great. Also just like comparison in general to everything that’s going on right now, because I feel like there is this massive process of unlearning and re-learning. And so for kids that may be learning things for the first time, but for their parents, they may be, you know, re-learning a number of things from biases to, you know history that they’re taught in school. And, you know, like even like for me, like as a black woman, I still feel like I’m learning 20 new things every day. I used to be one new thing every day. I think so many people are sharing resources that now it’s like up to 20 new things every day where I’m like, oh–.
Rebecca: Yeah. So it’s overwhelming sometimes. So much that goes out. And I think that that’s where the paralysis sets in. And I think that’s related to not only this racism stuff, but with the coronavirus stuff, with parenting at home, you know, like there’s 800 million resources. And you can do this at home. You can do that at home. And you just like, I can’t do all this, just go watch TV and I’m going to, like, do my work. And I just, you know, you get to it’s just too much, you know, and we can’t let that happen. We can’t let you know. And I always say just smart, start small, you know. You know, I’m just gonna do one thing today, you know, like make it the tiniest thing, you know? And then just another thing and another thing. And eventually, you know, you’re doing something and also be kind to yourself. This is so hard for everybody. I mean, of course, it’s harder for the people who are– what was this great quote I saw? It was a political cartoon shows. It was like “we’re all we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same ship.” And I feel like people are always like, I can’t, I can’t. I can’t say I’m having a hard time because my ship is not, you know. My ship is not on a person of color ship. You know, I’m a person. But I’m still in a ship, in a storm, you know. And you do need to be able to be kind to yourself so that your ship doesn’t get doesn’t sink. And you can help that person who’s in a in a weaker ship right? you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can put the person, other person’s oxygen mask on. And that even. I mean, I honestly, passionately believe in play, not just for kids, but for grown ups, too, like yes. GosSave the world. March. Learn, read, teach your kids, but also be kind to yourself. Do something that makes you have fun. Do something that makes you laugh. Spend time doing things that bring you joy. Because that will bring you the strength and the resolution that you need to be able to continue doing this hard work and this hard work should go on for the long haul. So you need to have that that energy to sustain yourself. I’m sounding very preachy I feel.
Raina: No I mean I know our listeners didn’t hear this, but we were just talking about how I don’t know how tiring the work day is. And like, even more so than like usual. Like it feels like because I think I’m on social media for my job a lot of times and reading articles and like staying up to date on things. But then I’ll get like into this other like, you know, rabbit hole of social media. That’s like, oh, I’m here to look at something posted by our account. And then suddenly I’m reading a Facebook debate or I’m watching videos of protesters or, you know, this or that. And it’s like it’s it’s overwhelming and it’s tiring and it’s exhausting.
Rebecca: It’s heavy, heavy. And we need to play. We do. We need to play. And, you know, I mean, were we’re gone to the yellow phase. And and it’s it’s like it’s hard. It was like ambiguous before. You were like, OK, it was unambiguous. I mean, before it’s red we’re home. Right like, you don’t do anything unless you’re like essential. And now it’s like, OK, it’s yellow. What do I do and what do I do with my kids? Do I let them go on a playdate? What do we do? I think it’s actually a little bit harder than these days because you don’t want to endanger your kids. Obviously, health and safety is the most important, but. Children are children, children need to play. And that is a very important thing as well. So it’s Smith. We’re going to be starting starting where we’re calling play breaks, where it’s just two hour drop off windows between 10–12 and 1–3 Monday through Friday. I mean, Tuesday through Friday. Sorry, we’re closed on Mondays. And it’s just we’re gonna keep it’s five to ten year olds who are old enough to know to keep their mask on and understand and kind of stay apart. And it’s just a couple hours. So you could drop off your kid. They can run around and play, you know, and and you can just go and run an errand or maybe have a Zoom meeting where your kid isn’t jumping into the screen every 30 seconds or maybe just, you know, go play yourself, go do something for your own self. And we and then, you know, in two hours, the kids will go back to the quarantine life, I guess. But we’re hoping that it could be a service for families to sort of ease back into, you know, their kids playing and and having time with each other, but still keeping the social distance and keeping the, and with young children, you know, it’s really hard to imagine keeping them apart for, you know, a full day. You like to eat out, whatever. That would be very developmentally difficult, depending on the kid, obviously. But most kids can do it for a couple hours. They’ll be OK, you know. And so we’re hoping that will be a good, good support for families.
Raina: Yeah, I’m curious how the pandemic and the quarantine has kind of highlighted the value of outdoor space and also shared space for play in– in the city and also in society more broadly.
Rebecca: I mean, I think it’s kind of funny because I think this whole pandemic has really kind of helped, in my opinion, like the Smith cause, because as Tenara mentioned, our mission is unstructured freeplay. Right. And there’s so many families and so many parents who were like these kids. They’re driving me crazy. They want all this attention. Right. And it’s because they don’t really know how to play, you know, like we as a culture in a society, like being a little bit broad stroke here. So, you know, it’s not every child. But in general, we’ve kind of gone away from, like, my childhood, which was like, go home, play. See you at dinner when I blow the whistle. And I was like, here, I’d be God knows where in my neighborhood. And I hear the whistle and I feel like I got to go, oh, you know. And there were no play dates and there was no rules. And there’s none of this. I just when played and then they came home and my parents, don’t bother my parents. They had their own lives up to this like culture of like, oh, let me like arrange this this thing and then this thing and then this thing, which is OK when your kids are off at daycare or they’re off wherever, but when they’re home with you all the time and they’re like in your face and you’re like, why can’t you just play by yourself. Well they haven’t been taught how they don’t know how, you know. So I mean, I feel like this is this great opportunity in a way, for kids and families to kind of like get back to just like, well, I’ve got a cardboard box that just came in the mail of whatever in it. What am I going to do? You know, like or if I’m lucky enough to be able to have green space, I’m just gonna sit in the backyard and dig a hole for an hour and that’s fun. And it is you know, it it’s really super fun. And just like letting kids have that space to to make up their own games, to make up their own imagination, to make up their own play. You know, I mean, I’m hopeful that that seeing how that is so essential for kids to be able to be self-sufficient and be able to be resilient and be able to entertain themselves without a screen. I mean, I feel like people are you know, I’ve obviously always valued being outdoors. But I think that now that there’s all this evidence that I think it’s, oh, please, I’m not going to put a percentage, but a very, very low percentage of the pandemic, people who catch it have got it in outdoor spaces. So people are, are like going outdoors more. They feel safer outdoors. And that’s wonderful. And I do think also like it’s kind of the the need to be expanded like Philly, I think is the second greenest city in the whole country. But people tend to be like, I’m going to Kelly Drive or I’m going to Valley Green. Like, they just congregate. Right. And like these spaces. But Fairmount Park is huge. And there’s so much to see in there. So much to do. And I do feel like this is an opportunity to like kind of expand your footprint, like go someplace different. That’s actually another thing we’re doing at Smith. We’re calling it the play map. And it’s going to be kind of like, say, you come to Smith and all the play pods and play pads are gonna be like the circle things on the lawn are taken and, you know, but you just want to play. We’re just going to be giving out a map with sort of like you could walk to your walk the Frisbee golf course. You could go on Boxer’s trail, you could go over to the Liberty basketball court. You could go by the Discovery Center. And while you’re there and so that’s like one side is like all the places you can play like a map. And then on the back, it’s like here’s a bunch of activities you could do. No, no money, no. No equipment, no whatever. Like just, you know, do these these activities in these games so that, you know, people can kind of like, you know, take that and go play wherever, whoever they want to wander, you know, oh, my cat keeps meowing in your recording.
Raina: That’s OK. I think people will appreciate it.
Rebecca: She’s a good little girl. She always helps me with my work.
Rebecca: She’s gonna be so mad when everything changes. Right now she’s so spoiled right now. It’s like ridiculous.
Tenara: That’s really the thing. They’re, they’re going to– it’s gonna hit them hard. Yeah. Well, Raina, do you have any other questions you wanna ask Rebecca?
Raina: I think maybe just one question to end on a positive note would just be, you know, what successes have you seen with Smith, with any families you work with? Are there any, like, little victories that you want to share with our our listeners?
Rebecca: I want to mention– let me just mention a couple things, too, before I answer that question. I was just looking at my notes and I was like “wait, I didn’t say that and it’s a really good resource.” I had mentioned the book, website socialjusticebooks.org, and there is another great website called EmbraceRace.org. And it’s a little bit more well-rounded than some of the others. A lot of what we’re seeing is very aimed at like white people, like, hey, white people wake up and smell your racims. You know, which is good. I mean, that’s a positive thing. But, you know, people of color obviously have their own issues that they want to work out and think about in this this website, embrace race is like very good at, like, kind of, you know, addressing of all different populations needs. So it’s just one I would recommend. Yeah. And I just also read the other day that the American Psychiatric Association has said that there’s a pandemic of racism in country. And I think that that’s how we have to treat this. We have to treat, you know, just as seriously as we’ve taken– you know, for kids, it’s like, well, you can’t go out cause people because it’s because you’ll get sick. Well, you have to do something because this this this racism is a sickness as well. And we need to treat it just as seriously and and do what we can. And then for some wins at Smith, I mean, I think for me, just being able to be it’s miss it is very rewarding because I feel like since 1899 Smith has been a place for integrated play. And it was that way throughout the Jim Crow era, throughout, you know, segregation. And it is a place where families come and play. And I do believe that play is a way to heal, to play, to make a new friend to. You know, experience something that you wouldn’t have experienced without that. So I’m very hopeful that Smith can be a part of that healing. And I know that because we’ve been part of the community for so long, generations of Philadelphians have come to Smith to play and was on one of my calls the other day with one of my preschools that I work with. And she was like, I’m always so glad when you call because I know I can trust what you guys give me. There’s so much information, so overwhelming. But but this is this is something I can trust, you know, and that is a great honor and also a huge responsibility for us. And so, you know, we will be the good enough Smith. We will not be perfect. But it is a wonderful honor to be able to have that trust and have those roots and be able to, you know, step forward and and use play as a way, as a way, a place. Hopefully, Smith can be a place where people can can start to heal a little bit and and and, you know. Feel safe to to do some of that, that learning together.
Tenara: Oh, so sweet, Rebecca.
Rebecca: I’m like teared up right now.
Tenara: No but for real. I think for people really. I think people like drastically underestimate or just like devalue the role that early childhood experiences can have and just creating a well, a balanced and well-rounded human being in this world. And it’s important that places like Smith exist to be able to cultivate that as well. Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us for this podcast episode. I mean, I just you know, I so admire the work that you do. And I’m so happy that we were finally able to get you on this on this on this old pod that we have here.
Rebecca: Yes. Well, I really, really appreciate you guys. And I want to go to a Fringe show, and I can’t, and it’s so sad.
Tenara: Well we want to be able to bring you a Fringe show to go to.
Raina: So, Rebecca, where can people go to find out more about Smith and to support you during this time?
Rebecca: We are located on the web at SmithPlayground.org. And you can click on the donate by and we are very much in need of support right now because without the playground open, we are not getting any donations. So if you guys want to support play in Philadelphia and help us come back strong, we would really appreciate it.
Raina: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. You can also find FringeArts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and download the FringeArts app or just visit FringeArts.com. To you, Rebecca, Tenara and all of our listeners at home. Stay safe, say well and let’s kick racism in the butt.