Today host Lori Boll speaks with G. Cody QJ Goldberg, co-founder and Chief Play Officer of Harper’s Playground which inspires and empowers global communities to build radically inclusive playgrounds. Through storytelling, consulting, and unique design principles, they create playful nature-scapes where people of all ages and abilities find belonging and social connection through play. Lori and Cody discuss the inspiration behind Harper’s Playground, Cody’s belief that a well designed and realized inclusive play space can truly transform a community for the better, and of how schools and communities can design physically inviting, socially inviting, and emotionally inviting spaces.
Resources from today’s show:
Father of two, Cody proudly serves as the Chief Play Officer of Harper’s Playground. A graduate of New York University with a BFA in film and television studies, he co-founded the organization in 2010 along with his wife, April. Together they spearheaded the design, funding and construction of the first Harper’s Playground in Portland, Oregon. A big fan of inclusion of all kinds, Cody is committed to creating opportunities for both of his daughters to build friendships and community for themselves. He believes that the power of a well designed and realized inclusive play space can truly transform a community for the better.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
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Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour podcast with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy, so we bring you one hour’s worth of content in under 30 minutes, leaving you time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Hi everyone. So I was driving down the road a few weeks ago and I was listening to our public radio and came across a story of a family who started an organization called Harper’s Playground. And as soon as I heard the story, I thought, I need to get this group on our podcast and reached out to them and they responded. So I’m quite excited and happy to introduce you to G Cody QJ Goldberg.
Cody is the father of two and he and his wife, April, co -founded Harper’s Playground. And their mission is to inspire and empower global communities to build radically inclusive playgrounds. Through storytelling, consulting, and unique design principles, they create playful naturescapes where people of all ages and abilities find belonging and social connection through play. So an incredible mission and an incredible organization. Let me tell you a little bit more about Cody. He’s the father of two. He graduated from New York University with a BFA in film and television studies.
He and his wife, April, spearheaded the design for the very first Harper’s Playground in Portland, Oregon. Cody is a huge fan of inclusion of all kinds and is committed to creating opportunities for both of his daughters to build friendships and community for themselves. He believes that the power of a well -designed and realized inclusive play space can truly transform a community for the better. And I know he’s right. So I won’t go on any longer. I’m just excited for you to hear this episode.
So now on to the show. Well, hello, Cody, and welcome to the podcast.
Cody: Hi, Lori, how are you doing today?
Lori: I’m doing great, and I’m really, really excited you’re here with us today. I was listening to our public radio station and heard your interview, and I thought he must be on the SENIA Happy Hour podcast. Our listeners need to hear from you, so.
Well, pleasure to be here. So you are the Chief Play Officer and founder of Harper’s Playground, which creates inclusive and accessible playgrounds. Can you share your story behind Harper’s Playground and what inspired you to be part of this really incredible project?
Cody: Well, for a couple of small corrections, allow me if you will, first and foremost, I’m the co-founder. Yes, co co founder, my wife is the other co-founder, my wife, April. And really, it was actually her idea even in the beginning. So she’s like the first co-founder, I am the sub co-founder. And now, and now chief also chief play officer. And one other tiny correction that we’ll maybe get into. We call our place our playgrounds radically inclusive. You mentioned inclusive and accessible, accessible is something that we consider as one key component of inclusive but not an end, I think, maybe. But I love talking about our design philosophy. We can get into that more. And what it is that makes it radically inclusive. Accessible is the first layer. But by itself, accessible is almost nothing.
Lori: Yes. That is a great point. And thank you for sharing that. And we will get into it. In fact, can you share your, well, your vision statement, which is similar to SENIA. Our vision statement is to live in an inclusive world. Your vision statement is a more inclusive world, one playground at a time, naturally. So, do you want to share a little bit about that?
Cody: I do like yours. I think yours is good. Noodling around with mission statements and vision statements is such an interesting thing to do, right? Our vision statement has been the same since the very first playground, which was opened 11 years ago now. The journey began, and you asked about the Genesis too, the journey began for us really 18 years ago, plus when Harper was born, when we entered what people refer to sometimes as disability land. I don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase.
Lori: Yes, of course.
Cody: So we entered disability land when Harper was born because it was a very traumatic birth story, like so many people in our community have experienced. We were in the Harper was Harper was in the NICU and we were with her most of the time for a full month. And it was during our time in the intensive care unit with her that somebody suggested taking a blood sample because she had some anomalies that were of interest. And the long story short, we found out that we were on this journey of disability shortly after we got out of the intensive care unit. And they told us that she had a diagnosis of something called Immanuel Syndrome. It’s part of a family of differences called partial trisomy.
So it’s in the chromosome with numbers 11 and 22. And the geneticists at the hospital where Harper received her diagnosis had never heard of it. They had to Google it. And all they could figure out was to suggest to us that she would never walk nor talk in her lifetime. That was what they told us.
Lori: That must have been quite the news to get as parents.
Cody: It was pretty surreal. I mean, I can remember the moment and I felt like, so I studied film and television in college and there’s this thing that you do in movies where the camera comes at you but you’re pulling back and they use it a lot when time stands still and that’s definitely how it felt. I mean, it was a pretty impactful moment. How do you unpack that? So I think I’ve been unpacking it for 18 years to a certain degree, but what I’m really, I think, excited to share about is that while there were initial moments of like fear and dread and concern, you know, those really passed pretty quickly once I started to just recognize that one of the many, one of the many beautiful gifts that Harper has brought into our life is that if we’re just present with her in the present moment, there’s nothing wrong. And what a gift that is to have somebody in your life who is constantly reminding you not to worry about the future, but to be present. So, anyhow, the story that I guess is the Harper’s playground genesis story is that four years later, she had learned how to walk with this little yellow walker.
And we took her on her maiden voyage, we took a walk in our neighborhood park. And that park had a playground within it that was like typical playgrounds surrounded by wood chips. And that little walker that she was using got stuck in those wood chips and my wife, who gets the full credit for co-founding the organization and even thinking of this. She got really mad like immediately that that design injustice had like caused harm to our daughter on the day she started walking and she said we should do something about this. So that became the start of Harper’s Playground back in the summer of 2009 is when this all started.
Lori: Wow. So Harper is quite your inspiration and April. Throw out all the props to her for her idea. Credit where credit is due, but you two have worked on this together along with family and investors and such, I’m sure to make this happen.
Cody: So, yeah, it’s been an amazing journey. And that first journey, you know, it’s, I guess, in chapters, or I’d say there, let’s call it a book, this book has several chapters. The first chapter was Harper’s birth story and learning about disability world and another props I’d love to give I don’t, I would imagine you all know in your network about Kathy snow. She wrote a book called disability is natural. She’s a speaker that April and I listened to a passionate speaker about inclusion. And we listened to her around the time I’m imagining Harper was about a year old, it was in the first year of her life. And that had set us up to now lifetime of being inclusion advocates. That speech, the talk that we heard from Kathy Snow and then the experience we had at the playground, those melded together. And the first three years of Harper’s Playground, what you’re talking about, we started with a bake sale in front of our house.
And in three years, we had raised $1 .2 million and come up with a very innovative design. And most impressively, if I’m going to throw my shoulder out patting myself on the back, most impressively, we got it built. That is no easy task to navigate a city bureaucracy. And basically, we showed up at the city’s door and said, you’re doing it all wrong. We’ll show you how to do it. And they don’t necessarily say, oh, great. Thank you for telling us we’re doing everything. Here’s the keys to a public park. You do it. That’s not how it was.
Lori: And your first playground was built in Portland, Oregon.
Cody: Yep, Portland, Oregon. Our family has since moved to Vancouver, Washington, just across the river. But many of our projects are here still in the Pacific Northwest. But we have one as far away as Tokyo, Japan.
Lori: Yeah, I saw that on the website. And that is a incredible looking playground. So I’ll encourage people to check that out. So tell me about the word “naturally” that you’ve added to the end of your vision.
Cody: Well, I am big on double meaning, if you can get it. And that’s what it’s meaning here. We use nature in our design quite a bit. And so nature, everyone deserves play. Everyone deserves community and everyone deserves access to nature. And natural features make for a better playground as well. So that’s what that word means in a more literal sense.
We also believe that inclusion is the natural order of things. That children are born to be inclusive and they learn to exclude, especially through experiencing built environments that encourage exclusion. So that’s something, that’s part of why the word is there. I work with community groups all the time and it just blows my mind that adults in the room, and I think I said this in that OPB interview that you heard, but adults in the room that we work with all the time are trying to convince us that what we’ve already done is impossible, that you can’t build an environment that works for people like Harper and also works for people who are typically developing, right? It’s impossible that there has to be a trade -off, right? It’s gonna not be as cool for those other people. And the children in the room, we work with kids all the time, the children in the room are always quick to say, of course we can do it. And not only of course can we, but we must, like there’s no, we can’t compromise.
Lori: Of course, yeah.
Cody: So that’s why I say it’s a natural order of things. Kids are inclusive. Yeah, and just thinking about that whole idea of universal design for inclusion. It’s not hard to imagine if… you just imagine it, if you’re willing and open. And I think as adults, you know, people just get stuck in their ways.
Cody: So, yeah. Luckily for me, I never grew up. That was something I was adamant that I would never do. So I found the perfect work for myself as a forever child, which is designing playgrounds.
Lori: I love it. I love it. Well, you mentioned that you believe that the power of a well -designed and realized inclusive place space can truly transform a community for the better. So can you elaborate on that a little bit? I think you already shared a bit, but I’d love to hear more.
Cody: Well, I think it all boils down to one of our key philosophies, which is it’s not the stuff you put in the playground that really matters that much. It’s the people that are invited to be within it. And so the true magic of Harper’s Playground is nothing to do with what we actually put in there. It’s minimalism. And when you create a space that really does draw the widest variety of people, people love variety. They just do. We just we love it. And so it’s so you create connections with different types of human beings. So you learn about stories from different types of people. So it’s just magic. And it’s all about making sure that the widest variety of people can be there.
And I think the benefits that we’re talking about, we hear about people who meet future mates at you know, at spaces like this, or people find out that they can help each other, you know, it’s just the power of community. And there’s a bit of an epidemic in this, especially in this country, but really globally taking place of isolation. The U .S. Surgeon General put out a report just this year, Our Epidemic of Loneliness, and social isolation is killing people, quite literally reducing their lives, lifespans. And their number one recommendation to combat social isolation was physical environments that encourage social connection. So I guess that’s what I’m talking about.
Lori: Yeah, brilliant. Well, in March, SENIA is holding its annual in person conference and our conference will be in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. And the theme for our conference is designing for inclusion. And so I’d love for you to talk about the design elements that go into making a playground. What does that planning process look like?
Cody: Well, a good design process certainly begins with site selection. So, you know, the design work doesn’t doesn’t start once you already have a place selected it’s choosing a good location for us with outdoor outdoor play environments that includes everything from existing tree canopy back to nature being so important and the shade that big trees offer Other amenities that you’re going to engage with so we think about everything from bus lines and parking to bathrooms that existing infrastructure. That’s so important to think about when you’re thinking about designing for inclusion is what’s already there, like what, what, where, where, where is it even physically with other surroundings. In terms of like Is it at the center of things or is it at the edge of town kind of thing, you know, is it going to, is it going to be closer to everybody.
So there’s all those considerations in the beginning, but once you have a site. And that’s often where we come in because we do often work with people who have a site already. And we’re thinking about inclusion, it first does start with accessibility. And if it’s not accessible then it’s never going to be inclusive. But if it’s only accessible, that’s just not enough, but it’s the first layer of what we call physically inviting. So, to be a physically inviting space it has to be accessible and then the next piece is adaptive. What is so accessible gets you to something adaptations allow you to use it. The most users to use it. So that’s the first order of business for us is physically inviting. Then we like to talk about socially inviting. Designing for social connection includes things like circular seating areas with cutouts. So a wheelchair can fit into a notch, let’s say, and be seated next to a friend and not in the way. If there’s a circular seating and there’s no breaks in it, then the wheelchairs are in the way. As an example, choosing features that encourage and support multiple people using them at a time, because inclusion is really about connection, not just about being in the same location. So for us, that’s a group swing, let’s say, or things of that nature. Also, we add a lot of nature because, natural materials put us in a better social frame to connect with one another. So we design for social connection and that’s what we call socially inviting. So again, number one, physically inviting, number two, socially inviting. Then number three, we talk about emotionally inviting. That next layer, when we’re really emotionally safe and happy, we’re even more likely to connect with friends and have a good time. And so that’s where we put in artwork and good design. Good design is hard to totally qualify and quantify, but you know it when you see it. Luckily, nature has been well designed. I don’t know if you know who designed nature, but I know that they did a good job.
Cody: There you go. Physically inviting, socially inviting, and emotionally inviting. That’s a big part of it.
Lori: Fascinating. So most of our listeners are currently working at international schools worldwide across the globe and so they may not be able to take part in building some like supporting a community space but more so maybe working with their own school playgrounds to be to make them radically inclusive. So might you have some suggestions on how they can get started? Or is this something that your group does?
Cody: Well, yeah, we do. We do consultations all the time. We’ve been working with schools. In the very beginning, when we were just starting out, we were really prioritizing community playgrounds. Just because they’re open to all all the time and a school is really more of a private setting for such a long part of the day, but as we’ve grown we’ve turned our attention to schools and schools are. We want every outdoor and even indoor environment to be inclusive. It’s pretty simple, you know if you add some boulders and some trees. That that often can really transform a space. You know, most schools, at least in the US are just vast wastelands of asphalt. And so when we come in and help folks we have them carve out a certain area to remove the asphalt, plant some trees, put in some boulders, and that’s a great start.
It really, children are so hardwired to play that they will play anywhere. We just have to do less harm by creating like hot. You know, hot deserts of asphalt with a plastic structure on them that just doesn’t work. But so, you know, it can be as simple as a it’s not rocket science. I’m here to tell you if I can figure it out, anyone can figure it out. Yeah, and the boulders I imagine they they not only encourage climbing but just hanging out and being with one another. So that social piece.
Lori: Yeah, fascinating. They’re also really tactile typically for, you know, running your hand on so children who need and are drawn to different sensory inputs boulders are great for that too.
Lori: And your website has pictures of all the different playgrounds that you’ve supported along the way. And so I’ll put the website link in our show notes for our listeners to take a look at as well. So tell me about your job title, Chief Play Officer.
Cody: Yeah, that’s a dream come true to have a title that I want. I never set out to be an executive director, which is what I was before this. And it speaks to my desire to remain playful all the time. And to remember and to focus on the fact that we are designing spaces for play. And that play. Play is fascinating. I love, I’ve read so much literature about play. It’s almost impossible to really define what play is. It has such a multifaceted beautiful gem of a thing. But I love it. I love the fact that play is so good for us and that it brings forth joy. It’s enjoyable to do and it’s so healthy to play, not just for children, but for everybody to hold on to play and to remain playful. And so I have that title and I wear a hat. I know this is not video, but I wear a hat with the word play on it all the time.
Play is the way. I like to say that play is actually the way we’re going to create a better world And then one of the things that I love about play is play is is play is naturally inclusive if you’re excluding people from a game, then you’re not playing because Play would play would never exclude plays is is is such a egalitarian empathetic perfect state of being that I think it’s a it’s an ideal that I just try to keep at the forefront of everything I’m doing.
Lori: I love it. And also, so you’ve got your hat that says play and then your sweatshirt says inclusion is dope. I love. Do you sell those?
Cody: They’re for sale on our website.
Lori: Are they? Awesome. Okay, I’m going to get off here and buy one. immediately.
Cody: Yeah, we have. I’m an older man now. It’s amazing to say that because in my mind, as I said, I’ve never grown up. I’m a little bit older at least. I’m 54 years old. We have an associate board that came up with this merchandise line. They were like, we need to attract a younger audience to Harper’s Playground. And so that was their idea to come up with this merch line. Inclusion is dope because dope is good. It turns out the kids and it’s also eye catching and all the rest. But yeah, inclusion is awesome.
Lori: Yeah, that’s a great, great phrase. So what’s next for Harper’s Playground? What do you have going on that you’re excited about?
Cody: I’m excited about so many things. We just opened our largest, most ambitious project this past weekend in Vancouver. So we’re gonna spend a lot of time celebrating it and activating it. We do an annual fundraiser that will be at that playground September 23rd.
But we have two projects in the Pacific Northwest that we’re designing in a town called Bothell, Washington. It’s a suburb of Seattle. We have one really exciting project in Selma, Alabama. It will be John Lewis Memorial Playground.
And then we don’t have the project actually to speak of yet, but I have to make it happen. I promised Harper’s younger sister Lennon that she would get a playground of her own in New York City. And so I’m behind schedule on that. So I have to make that happen sooner than later.
Lori: Ah, go Lennon.
Lori: And does Lennon have design, like her own design for this playground or ideas?
Cody: Lennon has a lot of ideas. She wants everything possible in there, and it would be my job to help her learn the art of minimalism so that we make make room for the people. But she is Lennon is 14, and she has spent 13 of those 14 years completely immersed in Harper’s playground work. She always is recognizing if a place is not accessible and she she’s not only committed to the work, but she wants her own playground in her own name because her sister has many in her name. So there’s a little jealousy thing there.
Lori: Well, sure. Who can blame her? But it is often the siblings who take on this role and there are, I don’t know, eyes and ears on inclusion.
Cody: Yeah, for sure.
Lori: Well, Cody, I think we’re about out of time for today. But thank you for your time. Thank you for your commitment and compassion and for building a more inclusive world one playground at a time. So I really appreciate it.
Cody: Lori, thanks for having me. It was a fun conversation. I hope that people enjoyed it.
Lori: Oh, they will. And I’m sure you’ll be getting a lot of purchases of your sweatshirts upcoming.
Cody: They all, every penny goes to building more playgrounds.
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Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information, including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s seniainternational.org/podcasts. Until next time, cheers.
[ Outro music plays ]
Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and shownotes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcasts. Until next time… cheers!