John Dean strides into the classroom filled with pupils from two first-grade classes at the Winn Brook Elementary School.
His thinning grey-ish hair covered by a beat-up black beret, Dean – wearing a stone-washed work shirt, khakis and running shoes – takes a seat in a chair two-sizes too small for him and looks out over 50 eager yet apprehensive faces.
"Good morning. My name is John and I'm a designer. Do you know what a designer does?" said Dean, infectious in tone and manner – you'll soon find his arm around your shoulder if you spend more than a few minutes with him – that lowers his audience's inhibitions and raises their participation.
"Am I here to design a shirt?"
"Am I here to design a shoe?"
"Am I here to design a playground?"
"YES," the children bellow in a happy unison.
For the next 15 minutes, Dean lets the students dream out loud.
Dean was hired by the Friends of Joey's Park to design and supervise the building of a new play structure and grounds at the current playground site adjacent to the Winn Brook along Cross Street.
The plans are set, now Belmont will need to fund the New Joey's Playground: Register for the inaugural Walk for Joey's Park that steps off at 2 p.m., Oct. 14 (walks.joeyspark.org). The Fundraiser starts and ends at Joey's Park and is only two-miles long.
A model of modern playground techniques when it was built in 1989 as a memorial to Joey O'Donnell, who died too soon at 12 in 1986, the current array of wooden beams and play spaces deteriorated to where the town's Department of Public Works closed down the beloved park nearly a year ago.
Only after extensive repairs was the playground allowed to reopen but the writing was on the wall; a new playground was needed.
But the structure would not be selected out of a catalogue, said Friends of Joey's Park's Stephanie Leydon. Like the original playground, Winn Brook students would offer up design ideas to be incorporated into the final construction.
With support by the Board of Selectmen, the Friends – formed by the Winn Brook Parent Teacher Association – teamed up with Play by Design's Dean, an Ithaca, New York-based playground designer, illustrator, and park consultant, who brought a quarter century of experience traveling the country creating innovative structures to the Winn Brook.
With his detachable reading glasses around his neck and holding rolled up papers, Dean visited classroom after classroom, asking the students what features they want in the revamped playground.
And while many of the suggestions are what you'd expect from six-to-nine year old – a zip line, tunnels, covered slides – Dean takes each request one step further; do you want the slides go straight "or go round?" the "zig zagging" balance beam? how about a place you can hide"
Dean continually asks for ideas, always probing, writing notations in his paper from the standard: swings; to the fanciful; "Can we have a hot tub?" wondered a third grader.
"If we put in a hot tub, we won't have any money for all the rest of the great stuff you want," said Dean.
"One reason (Dean) was hired is because he is like a teacher," said Ellen Schreiber, co-creator of Belmont's Partners in Play which is leading the project's fund-raising.
"He doesn't talk down to the students and I think the kids know that they'll be heard. There's no feeling that (Dean) is talking down to them," said Schreiber, a co-president of the Winn Brook PTA.
Yet designing the playground was only half the goal for the day, said Dean. The other is creating an enthusiasm for the project so when he returns next September, he'll find "mucho" volunteers waiting to participate for a massive town “barn raising” in which residents will volunteer their time and skills to build the structure over a weekend.
Building a community energy
"We are promoting a community-build process and we've discovered that it works anywhere, whether it's in an urban setting or the suburbs," Dean said.
"I mean, a lot of this day is about getting ideas but just as important is also building energy; getting people revved about this. And a pretty good way to getting to the people is through the kids," he said.
"Where are you going to be tonight?" Dean asked the first graders. "In the gym?"
"In the gym," the students say in unison.
"Will you come tonight?"
"Will you drag your parents here tonight?"
"And will you kids help build this playground?"
By noon, after visiting the classrooms and talking with hundreds of pupils and being interviewed by a Boston television crew, with the student's suggestions in hand, Dean and his Play by Design colleagues went to work.
"If we won't incorporate the vision the kids are looking for, they will not feel that they are actively involved with the process and we'll lose their interest," said Dean before leaving for a day.
At 7 p.m., Dean returned to the school and walked into the Winn Brook gym to be greeted by an explosion of approximately 450 parents, students, teachers and residents whose collective curiosity reaching levels usually seen in the December holidays.
The numbers who arrived took the designer and his associates by surprise.
"Typically we'll get 50 to 75 people at these. This is way beyond I would ever had expected," said Dean, wading through children and parents to unveil his preliminary blueprint.
And there was the zip line, the curvy tunnel, swings, an obstacle course, an interconnected central play area of covered turning slides, cargo nets and places to hide. The playground is connected with a path leading to several tent-like structures with their own activities.
"I like that there's a lot of climbing places and the zip line is there," said Winn Brook student Theo Moustakas of the playground he "helped" design.
"I don't think we had any choice but to come," said Theo's mom, Katie, who along with his younger brother and father, Dmitri, came to the gym.
"I think this is a fantastic concept, especially bringing the community to build it later," said Dmitri Moustakas.
In among the crowd was the O'Donnell family, including Joey's mother and father, who looked on with a great amount of satisfaction to witness that their son's life will be extended by another generation of Belmont children.
"It shows how much this playground means to the community," said Joey's father, Joe O'Donnell.
"This project is totally about continuing Joey's legacy by people who never knew him. That's what makes this so special," said O'Donnell, sweeping his arm over the gymnasium filled with children and adults.
By the end of the night, Dean appeared reluctant to leave, outlasting most of the crowd, talking to anyone willing to listen, his excitement at its zenith.
"That's why I still do this," he said, hugging the last of the Friends and PTA members.
"It's passing the torch to the next generation. It's having adults coming up to me and say, 'I remember you when you built our playground. We'd like you to do it for a new playground.' How great is that?"