ACCRA – There are few old people in Ghana. There aren’t many wrinkles to be seen, no grey hair on heads. The streets are teeming with youth.
In Accra, two thirds of inhabitants are estimated to be under 15 years of age. Ghana has more than 50 per cent of its population under 18. With such an enormous quantity of the population soon to enter into the workforce, education and opportunity are essential to the nation’s stability.
That is why the Mmofra Foundation, a local non-profit founded by the legendary Efua Sutherland, and dedicated to the education of children, is engaged in the Playtime in Africa initiative, a project which is turning two acres of Accra into a sustainably designed, child-focused park. It is one of the first of its kind in Ghana, if not the rest of the continent.
Esi Sutherland-Addy, a Director at Mmofra, recognizes that the current educational system in Ghana does not necessarily incorporate the cultural diversity nor the traditions of its peoples, “School alienates people from their culture” she says.
The initiative is seeking to inspire people to to relearn values of shared public space that were an integral part of traditional life in the past. “The idea is to ground kids in the ability to interact with what the world has to offer” says Amowi Philips, Director of Mmofra. This is done through providing a space, games and materials for children to exercise their imagination, in order to recover models of learning through doing.
In fact, being able to explore one’s immediate environment is more important than having toys to play with, says Sharon Lynn Kagan, professor of Early Childhood Policy at Columbia University. Play develops children’s social skills, problem solving ability and emotional functioning. Play she says, “needs to be guided play, intentional play, so there is meaning derived from what they perceive as play.”
At Mmofra adult professionals direct activities in drama, reading and art, all centred at involving children in games and activities in which they are typically not engaged. Furthermore, traditional games such as oware, which have been reformatted to suit an outdoor environment.
Ghana has recognized the importance of play and was the first country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees the right to play and to cultural and recreational activities.
Playtime in Africa focuses on the fusion between two of Ghana’s, if not West Africa’s most important issues, education and urbanization. On top of a population boom, Accra is, to put it mildly, somewhat congested. Approximately 90 per cent of the capital’s housing is characterized as informal. In other words, there isn’t much space.
With the amount of Ghanaians living in cities expected to reach 66 per cent by 2025, the need for public space and access to education is becoming an increasingly important issue.
“Without an environment where children can imagine a better future, dependency can become really entrenched” says Phillips.
Furthermore, adds Phillips, “There’s just no consciousness of a kind of civic responsibility, a sense of civic aesthetic and how to be a 21st century urban, cultural city – our own city. So start with the children, that’s the idea.”
According to Architecture for Humanity, a non-profit network of professionals bringing design, construction and development services to areas in need, “architecture can be designed to passively teach children and adults about their past, about nature and appropriate ways to interact with it through the built environment.”
Green space in urban settings has been confirmed to have a positive impact upon general well being, health and longevity. Considering the current situation in Accra, giving children the opportunity to value and experience green, shared space in an educational context seems intelligent indeed.