Opinion: Creating ample space for play at Willard Park

The Willard Neighborhood Association urges the parks department to focus on a smaller clubhouse that could meet staff and children’s needs.

The T1 bond measure passed in 2016 allocates public funds for rebuilding the Willard Park clubhouse in Berkeley’s south campus area. The design phase of this project is currently going forward, following the planning phase that included two periods for public commentary and input.

The current one-room clubhouse supports a robust after-school activity program, run by Berkeley Parks and Recreation Department, for elementary school-age children (accommodating up to 45), plus a summer recreation program for the same age group. Historically these programs fill up quickly once they are opened online for enrollment. The indoor clubhouse space at 580 square feet is small. The children spend most of their time outdoors. Organized games, active exploratory play, art and table games happen on the park’s open lawn or the paved patio beside the clubhouse.

The children’s program integrates with the many other daily uses of the park’s open space — space that provides visual and physical respite to an increasingly densely populated neighborhood. Even with the children present, at least half the open space is available for informal adult games (soccer, volleyball, frisbee, etc.), small-group gatherings, martial-arts practice, sunset watching. At least three neighborhood preschool programs also use the park in the mornings for outdoor play.  

Berkeley Parks Recreation & Waterfront Department preferred alternative for the clubhouse project calls for a much larger building that would provide three “community rooms,” both for the children and additional community activities, that would entail 2,300 square feet of interior space. Additional elements include an office, storage space, restrooms, utility room and circulation space, making a total building area of 4,195 square feet, according to Wendy Wellbrock, project manager for the parks department. This proposed construction is seven times the footprint of the existing 580 square feet building and will reduce the open space in the park by 20%.  

Rather than reduce the open space in Willard Park with such a large “community center,” the Willard Neighborhood Association (WNA) urges the Parks Recreation & Waterfront Department to focus on a smaller clubhouse that could meet staff and children’s needs, with emphasis on supporting outdoor learning, social interaction, and the physical benefits of spending time in the open air.

Specific concerns voiced by the neighborhood association at public hearings (three Zoom meetings and two in-person meetings in Willard Park during the summer and fall of 2021) called for a significantly reduced clubhouse footprint, both to preserve the outdoor emphasis of the children’s programs and to retain maximal open space for public use.  

These concerns were echoed in a survey conducted by the WNA that generated 347 responses (more than 70% of the respondents live within six blocks of Willard Park). The vast majority of the respondents asked for a significantly smaller clubhouse than the preferred alternative presented to the city council by the parks department in December. The council voted to approve moving the project forward to the design phase at that meeting. 

Outdoor play is a key developmental component. Based on my 27 years of experience as center director in UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Education Program, I can verify that children who have spent six hours in a schoolroom need space to run, play, explore and try new physical and interpersonal skills. To plan a park clubhouse around “classroom” activities is not appropriate. Instead, the outdoor setting can be configured to provide space for quiet self-directed occupations (reading, drawing, exploring materials like clay and water) as well as for active supervised games (ball games, tag and relay races, etc.) or games of the children’s own devising that build on their imaginative and negotiation skills.

An example of such a “fresh-air” environment can be seen at UC Berkeley’s Harold Jones Child Study Center (2425 Atherton St.), built in 1960 by Joseph Esherick, where extended semi-shelters in each of two play yards allow all sorts of active learning to take place outdoors, even on rainy days. The California Academy of Science’s newly opened “Wander Woods” is another example of a learning environment free of “classroom” constraints.

WNA hopes the City Council will reconsider their vote and send the project back to the Berkeley Parks, Recreation & Waterfront Department for further work in planning a clubhouse that more nearly matches the neighborhood’s demonstrated desires for open space.

Rebecca Tracy is on the Steering Committee of the Willard Neighborhood Association. She has lived in the Willard Park neighborhood since 1968 and worked in the field of Early Childhood Education since 1963, much of it as a center director with UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Education Program.