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Meet creative Brooklyn mom and director of play:groundNYC Zoe Fortin

Meet Zoe Fortin, Brooklyn mom and executive director of play:groundNYC best known for their junkyard playground on Governors Island and pop-up playgrounds in Brooklyn. Find out about her work, life in Brooklyn and major plans to bring more play to the streets of NYC.

Your job title: I’m the Executive Director of play:groundNYC, a nonprofit focused on children’s play in the urban environment

Your work in one sentence: Every day is different: I work with playworkers, schools, organizers, officials, our funders, urban planners and our board to run the adventure playground, organize play pop-ups in the streets, help make sure recess is the best it can be, and advocate for more play around the city!

Your children: Our daughter Nawa (3) will be a big sister in just a few weeks. She is funny, affectionate, opinionated, incredibly chatty; these days she loves Coco and Encanto, eating roasted chicken, fake-playing the ukulele, imagining worlds with legos, painting and cutting paper into tiny pieces …and sneaking into our bed in the middle of the night. I am so in awe of her curiosity and observing her grow and play has changed me (for the better!) and inspires a lot of my work at play:groundNYC

Where do your kids go to school: Nawa attends PS5; it’s on our street in Bed-Stuy and it has a French dual program (I am French and Nawa is bilingual). Her teachers are amazing and she loves it there so we are hoping our second child will also attend PS5. In the meantime, we are thrilled that our former nanny, Jen, who was such a huge part of Nawa’s first years, will be taking care of our second child. Jen is fantastic.

Which neighborhood do you live in: We have been in Bed-Stuy for several years and hope to be here for a while!

What do you love about living in Brooklyn: There is so much we love about Brooklyn! We tend to be over schedulers and there’s always an adventure awaiting: Nawa still talks about seeing a heron at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden months ago; we go to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum often; we recently went canoeing and roller skating on the piers in Brooklyn Bridge Park; we love going to Artshack, a fantastic pottery studio and café; Nawa enjoys the activities organized by NYC Parks rangers in Ft Greene Park and Prospect Park; we often ride our bikes to Red Hook for a stroll or to Greenpoint for tacos at Taqueria Ramirez; we take full advantage of the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library; and we feel lucky to live near the Tompkins Ave open street. But really what makes it feel like home is the community we have: most of our friends live in Brooklyn, and we love running into them or meeting around a meal with the kids; we share school pickup duties with some friends who live nearby; our child is on a first-name basis with so many neighbors and store attendants in the neighborhood; there are so many families I trust in the neighborhood and it’s comforting to know that if I had an emergency, they would pick up our child in a heartbeat. We also installed and steward a little free library on our block, and it’s a delight to watch neighbors stop by, borrow, and give back. And for years we had chickens in our backyard …they now live at Community Roots Charter School! NYC can feel like a big stressful city, but our corner of Brooklyn is a lovely village.

More information about Playground:NYC: The nonprofit was created in 2016 by a dedicated team and it is most well-known for creating and stewarding The Yard on Governors Island. The Yard is an adventure playground, it is a place dedicated to play, where young people have ownership over how the space is built, altered, and enhanced. It might look like a junkyard; it is filled with materials, usually removed from the waste stream, over which children have complete control. An adventure playground is a child-led zone, where children can play, for free, supported by trained playworkers (parents and caretakers stay at the door!). There’s only one adventure playground in NYC but it isn’t a new concept: originally suggested by Danish architect Carl Theodor Sorensen in the 1930s, the first adventure playground opened outside Copenhagen in the early 1940s. The concept eventually caught on in other countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia, and the United States. New York City had several adventure playgrounds during the 1970s. The first adventure playground in the USA, opened in Minneapolis in 1949, was called The Yard, too (and inspired our name!). The Yard is open every weekend for free from April to November, and hosts a summer camp and many field trips from NYC schools. I also see it as a “lab” or proof of concept, to show what policy-makers, urban planners, and elected officials what playground could look like. It supports such a wider variety of play and a larger range of ages than “traditional” playgrounds, and is “greener,” with so much less concrete and mostly recycled materials. Not to mention the community-building opportunities that our team of playworkers offer! The Yard has been so popular that we are now officially looking for another NYC location to open a second adventure playground! Our work at play:groundNYC is rooted in the belief that NYC should have more and better playgrounds, AND that play should not be limited to playgrounds. We advocate for urban planning and school settings that allows for play: that means less cars, more joy, less directing the kids, more playstreets, less organized activities, more spontaneity, less asking the kids to sit for hours, more recess time, less fear of risk-taking, more public spaces for intergenerational enjoyment! There is tremendous research showing that the benefits of play on children’s health and learning are huge, so at a time when our youth faces a massive mental health crisis and significant learning loss, our mission is crucial: play is the way.

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