In our Citizen Placemaker series, we chat with amazing and inspiring people from outside the architecture, planning, and government worlds (the more traditional haunts of Placemakers) whose work exemplifies how creating great places goes far beyond the physical spaces that make up our cities.
Recently, we spoke with Ed Klugman, an advocate for inter-generational play and learning with more than six decades of experience with early childhood education. Ed lives in the Boston metropolitan area, where he works with various organizations to create places that build social capital by connecting people across generations.
How did you come to be an advocate for inter-generational learning and play? What motivates you to do this work?
I was born in Nuernberg, Germany, and lived under Hitler. When I was 13, the Nazis destroyed our apartment. I wound up in the UK via the Children’s Transport, and after that I came to the United States to reunite with my family. So I experienced the US as an immigrant; this is where I learned about Democracy. What stands out in my mind today are the Four Freedoms—the freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear; that impressed me, because that wasn’t part of my history. Where I came from, you didn’t talk, you hid. Experiencing that kind of freedom felt wild. So I have always enjoyed learning, and especially learning with people. I enjoy learning with children; that’s part of why I became a teacher. Wherever I am, if I am learning, I’m having fun. And when I’m teaching, I’m always learning from the children. There are so many benefits to learning together, but in our society today we layer things—toddlers over here, teens over there, adults farther off. Take a look at how play areas are organized in the US in public spaces; that tells you a lot about how we think about our society.
We talk about that a lot at PPS–the idea that so much of our society is siloed. City agencies, activities, destinations–all of these things exist in many thick-walled silos. How does focusing on inter-generational learning and play help with “silo-busting”?
As I’ve uncovered in my own personal research and experience, play is really part of learning throughout the life cycle. Even after 65, you keep learning if you’re open to it! We get and give energy throughout the life cycle, and by training and encouraging people to recognize that, we can create communities where sharing and collaborating are core values. Our public spaces are shared space, and right now they are suffering because we have not been acculturated into living and learning together at the very local level. Inter-generational play in public spaces, for instance, teaches us how to communicate with people who are different from ourselves, and who have very different viewpoints. Children learn from grandparents, grandparents learn from teenagers, teenagers learn from children; it’s reciprocal. This teaches us to become responsible not just for ourselves, but for our larger communities.
What do you think an ideal inter-generational play area looks and feels like?
When you’re trying to get people across three, four, five generations to play and learn together, the key is to give people opportunities to share and learn from each others’ different perspectives. You need to create an environment where they have many loose, flexible activities in a seamless environment. A picnic is one thing. Watching is another thing. Comparing what they see, that’s the key. It’s not just doing, it’s inventing. A place that encourages this kind of sharing is a place that really leads you toward communication with one another, rather than layering you, and separating your activities.
And these places shouldn’t be siloed, themselves, of course. How do you see inter-generational public spaces fitting into larger communities?
Look at the way that we do housing, today. A lot of housing is layered, just like our play spaces. People who are married live in one area, the single people in another area. People who have children and are married in yet a third area. God forbid you have all the people in that same setting! Our communities tend to be set up to perform one goal: housing. Not collaboration, talk, etc. When we talk about inter-generational activities and places and spaces, it is critical that we take a holistic approach, rather than the fragmented approach that’s so common today. Public spaces are just one part of the larger communities that we share.
Having contact or knowing about a person and their life’s journey leaves an indelible kind of legacy. It’s something to draw on, something to respect. The Jews who were driven out of Nuernberg, for instance, have an annual gathering in the Catskills that I’m hoping to take my children and grandchildren to soon. An activity like that can expose them to the fact that there are others from whom you can benefit and they become part of your overall network. We do it in Facebook, but it’s impersonal. It becomes personal once you really make contact, live together, exchange on a face to face basis, rather than in a virtual world.
What are you doing in your own work to create more of these places out in the real world?
I’m working, at the moment, on a committee in Cambridge, that focuses on inter-generational activity here. A few weeks ago, we hosted an event along the Charles River, where we tried to create the kind of environment described above. We wanted to encourage people to experience and imagine what it would be like to have more of these places where multiple generations could go together to play, and to learn. I also belong to the Early Childhood World Forum. We have a group of architects and designers who are working on determining how design can help shape places and encourage inter-generational communication and sharing. They’re meeting in Berkeley right now, to have an interdisciplinary discussion about this very subject; I wasn’t able to attend, but I worked with the co-chair of that conference to help shape the questions that will be asked. So at the moment, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they come up with!