Natural playing field

Designer Bill Fritts and dietician Michelle Ricker teamed up with Bezalel graduate students and Hand in Hand pupils to make environmentally friendly play structures.

June 11, 2010 22:01
Bill Fritts and Michelle Ricker in his studio.

Bill Fritts and Michelle Ricker in his studio 311. (photo credit: Barry Davis)

Bill Fritts and Michelle Ricker came to Israel to bring us some encouraging green messages from their home base on the other side of the planet, Portland, Oregon, but they also got an eye-opener or two themselves.

Fritts owns the Solidcore company, which manufactures environmentally friendly furniture and interior design items. As his business card puts it, all the materials Solidcore uses are “low-impact extraction, environmentally balanced or recycled, fabrication is done with green-generated electricity, finishes are organic or water based.”

The company also minimizes the use of packaging, endeavors to cut down on delivery-generated pollution and offers a 100-year warranty on most products. You can’t get much greener than that.

Meanwhile, Ricker is a dietician who has devoted a lot of time and energy to addressing the problem of obesity among schoolchildren in the US and later branched out into making children’s play areas more conducive to healthy movement.

Last week Fritts and Ricker took part in the Hybrid Design conference at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and also spent four days at Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand bilingual school for Jewish and Arab children.

“We were asked to do a project to get kids to participate with graduate design students to create structures of their design with our health-and-activity and kid-and-green outline, using simply found materials that cost basically nothing. When we found the bilingual school, we thought it was perfect. It was not just bringing together kids and grad students in design and green but also bringing together Jews and Arabs, so it elevated itself to this cross-cultural platform. We were really impressed and surprised by what we saw there,” says Fritts. “Before we came to Israel, we didn’t know about such things, about there being schools where Jewish and Arab children study together and play together. It was wonderful to see and very encouraging.”

The idea behind the Hand in Hand foray was to gather environmentally friendly and recycled materials and, together with the children, to create structures that would improve the quality of life at the school. Fritts and Ricker went to the municipal dump and collected branches and other gardening waste, as well as a large red tarpaulin. Naturally, anything they would end up with would have to be tailored to the children’s needs.

“The graduate design students went round the school with the children to get an idea of the children’s needs,” explains Ricker. “I think the students were also surprised by the harmony between the Jewish and the Arab children – and they live here, in Israel!”

The workshop at the school was based on the Fritts-Ricker Open Motion project which, as Fritts puts it, is based on his “sustainable environments and her [Ricker’s] background in nutrition and health and movement, focused mostly on kids. Open Motion goes after play structures and play environments for kids to move in, using natural green materials.”

According to Ricker, the project is very much a hands-on and collaborative effort. “We are looking at more of the integration of community. So a lot of the structures and the environments we are looking at will, hopefully, be formed in conjunction with local gardens or the planting of different fruits and vegetables and flowers, but the concept is more of community and getting the interactivity between parents and children, or just children, and then getting them to move to help build.”

That also has beneficial educational knock-on effects in the wider sense. “There’s movement and there’s the psychology of getting people to change their day-to-day ways of doing things and getting people to, for example, ride their bikes to work or to school and develop an awareness of movement. And we have found that the children become very attached to things they have built themselves and want to use them,” she explains.

Ricker says that while Israelis may be more physically active than Americans, we fall short on ecological aspects. “We see more movement here, but we are trying to bring more awareness of natural materials here, which we have been using to build the play structures at the school, and the awareness that you can make something out of nothing.”

Work at the Hand in Hand school started out with a pleasant surprise for Fritts and Ricker. “The teacher gave the kids scissors and knives to cut the tarpaulin and get the other materials to the sizes we needed. I asked her if it wasn’t a bit risky giving the children sharp implements, and she said, ‘Don’t worry; they’ll be fine.’ And they were. In the States, we’d have to get the children’s parents’ permission for that and all sorts of other approvals. So in that respect, it was easier to do the work here.”

In terms of the design, the kids, students and Fritts and Ricker weren’t working from scratch. “Bill has, in the past, created these woven environments with branches that companies have used more as a conference meeting room,” says Ricker. “They put these structures into office buildings, and then there’s that sort of nature psychology and round environments where people are comfortable. It’s kind of a nesting space, which is totally engaging in a new way in an office environment.”

That, it seems, also works with schoolchildren. “You should have seen the kids at the bilingual school,” says Fritts. “They were all so involved in the building of the structures, and they all crammed inside them and piled in on top of each other. So having contributed to making the areas gave them a feeling of belonging and also brought the kids, literally, into contact with each other inside them.”

Suitably buoyed by their experience here, Fritts and Ricker say they’ll be delighted to come back and help more organizations and people create environmentally friendly and socially healthy and healing items. “Having come to Israel and meeting such vibrant people, it really gives us a taste of more and of wanting to help more and more people here to live healthily and at very little cost.”

Sounds like a winner all round.
For more information about Bill Fritts’s and Michelle Ricker’s work: and

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