Fred Rogers understood play as a serious teacher of valuable life lessons, calling it “the true work of childhood.”

Science today would concur. Studies in the last decade now tout what educators (and many parents) have always known to be true—that pure, unstructured fun is as important to the development of a healthy brain as a good night’s sleep and nutritious food. At any age, play nourishes our neurons and improves problem-solving skills, emotional balance and more.

More recently play has taken on a broader social role as a catalyst for rebuilding communities and nourishing the children—and adults—who live there. Cities across the country—Washington, D.C., Chicago and Pittsburgh—have jumped on board in upping their game.

The Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative came together in 2013 with the goal of making the city a more playful place for all, especially in underserved neighborhoods. The organization spring-boarded from the playful theme of the 2013 Carnegie International, The Playground Project exhibition and colorful Lozziwurm play sculpture.

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Malaysia Brooks and her brother Reise take notes at the the visioning day at Frick Park. Photo by Brian Cohen

“Our goal is to raise the awareness of the importance of play as a healthy aspect of everyone’s life, no matter the age,” says Cara Ciminillo, interim director of PAEYC, one of PPC’s founding sponsors along with the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy, Carnegie Museum of Art and The Sprout Fund.

While still in the early planning stage, PPC is working with partners on a community visioning process that is bringing residents of Hazelwood and North Braddock together to to rethink play on a community scale. Those meetings are beginning to bear fruit.

Hazelwood will be home to the city’s first Play Trail, some 10 playscapes that will root themselves in key locations throughout Hazelwood. When completed, the play stations will provide a colorful pathway through the community offering a variety of playful opportunities.

“When we first started, we focused on children” says Ciminillo. “As we moved along we came to realize that adults are the gatekeepers for children’s experiences. If you want children to play, you need adults to get in touch with their own playful spirit. The Play Trail is really a metaphor for community development, conservation and strength.”

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Dianne Shenk, owner of Dylamato’s Market on Second Avenue, one of 10 planned play sites in Hazelwood. Photo by Brian Cohen

The first three play sites in Hazelwood are already hubs of community activity. A stage has been erected on the vacant lot on Second Avenue where the community gathers to buy fresh produce and food from vendors like Dylamato’s Market. Evening entertainment is planned; two wooden play boxes filled with sidewalk chalk, jump ropes and balls are on site.

The Elizabeth Street parklet will be the future site of a Kaboom playground. The third site is the Bob Vavro Gazebo, named for the 86-year-old Hazelwood resident who has suggested a structure and tire swings for the space.

“There hasn’t been one person in Hazelwood who hasn’t gotten behind play,” says Ciminillo. “The senior high-rise. The Burgwin (spray) park. The library. The market. Everyone wants to be part of the Play Trail.”

A unique part of the visioning process involves a series of excursions orchestrated by artist Edith Abeyta of the public art project Arts Excursions Unlimited. Over the next several months, Abeyta will accompany Hazelwood residents on outings where they will view public art in its many manifestations. On this particular day, the excursion was planned with parks and playgrounds as the focus.

“The goal is to break down the barriers the residents have,” Abeyta explains. “It’s a way for families to join their neighbors and connect with one another, to develop visual literacy and take it back to their neighborhood.”

In North Braddock, a Recycle Park will take shape at the corner of Bell and Verona Streets. The 18,850-square-foot space will include play areas, a multipurpose pavilion and performance space.

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Hazelwood crew leader Ahmed Turner Jr. takes a turn at Frick’s Blue Slide Park. Photo by Brian Cohen

Repurposed tires, pallets and a climbing structure will be a part of the playscape, says Victoria Vargo, executive director of the Braddock Carnegie Library. “It’s nice to have these little connectors in the neighborhood; it certainly brings about more socialization and adds a sense of community.”

One year into the visioning process, the residents are beginning to develop their own ideas and designs for the Hazelwood Play Trail. On a cloudless blue sky day in July, about 20 teens mostly from Hazelwood’s Student Conservation Association scrambled on slides and jungle gyms at Frick Park and listened to city leaders who spoke about the choices to consider in the creation of successful play spaces. The teens listened intently and took notes.