Development update :: 'Bright Spaces'

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March 1, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

Simpson Housing Services unveils 'Bright Spaces'

A Minneapolis housing nonprofit has just finished renovations on four brand new environments that integrate novel design, early education expertise and homelessness advocacy.

Simpson Housing Services is the latest local beneficiary of Bright Spaces, an international program that creates developmentally appropriate calm zones that help children in formerly homeless families keep pace with their peers. Each space is carefully designed by early education professionals and tailored to the specific population it serves. Equipped with bursting bookshelves, backpacks stuffed with educational games, dress-up clothing closets, tents and toy kitchens, the Bright Spaces are imagination-stoking workshops that educate through play.

Bright Spaces is the signature program of Bright Horizons Foundation for Children, the world’s leading provider of employer-sponsored childcare. Bright Horizons operates early education facilities and schools throughout the US and Europe. As part of its Bright Spaces program, the organization partners with community groups, leveraging the expertise of its staff to design the innovative playrooms.  

According to Bright Horizon spokeswoman Brandy Brown, there are more than 200 Bright Spaces operating in the U.S. and Europe, including a few already here in Minneapolis, at People Serving People, 614 3rd St. S.

The project at Simpson Housing Services was made possible when Walman Optical, a local eyewear chain, offered a $10,000 donation.

Simpson Housing Services unveiled their four new environments at a special Valentine’s Day ribbon-cutting ceremony. Each Bright Space is located at a different transitional housing site throughout Minneapolis. There is a space intended specifically for teens, a space geared toward smaller children and a space dedicated to families and fostering study skills. Each bears a plaque at its entrance honoring Jim Greenman, a Minneapolis native who went on to teach at the Harvard School of Design. Greenman, a lifelong advocate of child-focused design, passed away last April.

Children living in Passage Community Housing, one of Simpson’s sites, cut through a paper chain they had made specifically for the event.

According to Bright Horizons, youth who experience homelessness, domestic violence or other trauma are at serious risk of not developing the social, cognitive, language and motor skills needed for academic success. The stress of the lifestyle can trigger long-lasting cycles of instability that are quite difficult to break. By providing access to these Bright Spaces, the children at Simpson Housing have a greater chance of succeeding later in their academic and social lives.

Prior to the Bright Spaces project, Simpson Housing Services had accommodated the children of their clients on a sort of ad hoc basis, said spokesman Eric Johnson. A volunteer would organize a Jeopardy! game for teens in a conference room, or a tutor would try to arrange for a quiet space in which to meet students. But the nonprofit lacked the strategy-driven design solutions that Bright Horizons provided.

“We were just doing what we thought would be best for the families,” Johnson said. “And then these folks from Bright Horizons came in with all of these unique and innovative ideas that worked specifically well for the families in the program. Really clever, smart things.”

Bright Horizons volunteers assessed the already existing, available space in each Simpson building to come up with a site-specific redesign. A wasted space under a stairway became a padded infant area. A dishwasher in a kitchen space was adapted to sanitize toys.

“Everything was basically there,” Johnson said. “They just amped it up about 200 percent with colors and stimulating wall art. They even did a mural based off the children’s book ‘Chica Chica Boom Boom.’”

“I think the one that’s really neat is the listening station,” Johnson continued. At the Simpson Housing Services intake station, children can now don headphones while their parents go through the sometimes unpleasant process of registering for services. “The kids can hook into this listening station so that they don’t have to listen in to this whole story of all of the bad times the family went through. And that’s something that the people at Simpson have always thought was a problem but didn’t necessarily know what the solution was nor did we exactly have the means to handle that.”

Johnson estimates that there are about 100 children who will benefit from the new Bright Spaces. And in the teen room, there is one particular feature that Johnson is proud of.

“Lo and behold, we have a Wii,” he said. “And a flat-screen TV. We have Guitar Hero, of course, but we also have things like yoga for it, too.”

The children living at Simpson sites have been hugely enthusiastic about the new spaces.

“These are spaces that kids don’t want to leave,” Johnson said. “They basically need to be kicked out.”