drawing“Imagine yourself sitting under an apple tree reading a book or listening to music.” Early this spring, masked 5th graders pitched their ideas for a future Mill River Greenway park to an enthralled zoom audience of community members, local and state officials, project engineers and  Smith college educators. In their culminating presentation, Katie Joyce’s 5th grade class at Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg, MA shared their site designs for a park that will serve as an entrance from their village to the Mill River Greenway. The proposals sparked ideas for the park that grownups never could have imagined. The project is an inspiring example of how place-based education, community planning and civic engagement interact to give children agency and voice in shaping the futures of their river communities. 

Imagination and placemaking

Imagination played a central role in the pedagogy and communication of designing a future greenway park. After field trips to observe the location, students practiced skills of journaling, scale mapping and persuasive writing to create site designs and proposals. Storytelling connected children’s lived experiences with their dreams for the future park. “Imagine you just got ice cream”… “Imagine that you see the March Hare and the Mad Hatter sitting at a table.” Anticipating the diverse needs of their community, students included functional elements like trash cans and water for people and dogs, as well as quirky innovations like, “a porta potty  that is top quality and it smells like donuts.”

Community planning for recreation, conservation and local economydrawing

drawingOne 5th grader asked the audience to picture, “skateboards, scooters, bikes, and roller blades flying on the pavement,” while another made a persuasive pitch for a pump track: “Imagine you just got a new BMX bike for your birthday.” Visions of healthy living included shady wooden benches for grandparents and families to rest; a minnow pond with frogs; wild berry bushes;  and fruit trees for foraging. Their images portray a vibrant local economy, complete with a pretzel stand and hand-carved wooden benches for eating “cookie dough ice cream from the Williamsburg General Store.”

Civic engagement

zoom photoStudents’ ideas for the future greenway park delighted and informed the animated audience. Project engineers took notes and asked detailed questions about everything from trash cans to water fountains. Community members welcomed the idea of foraging for wild fruit and having a shady place to sit. Elected officials responded to individual proposals with follow-up questions and comments. Gaby Immerman, Chair of the Mill River Greenway Committee, will submit the proposals to the MRGI Design Committee to incorporate into the next stages of planning.

drawingIn the process of imagining a greenway park for their community, Katie Joyce and her fifth graders demonstrated the critical role children can play in shaping the future of their river communities. In the concluding words of one student, “Have I changed your minds yet? If not this is only the beginning.”

Curious to find out more? Check out these articles about the project:

Submitted by Carol Berner, May 2021