Blocks for Play Target Need For Improved Early Schooling

Matt Barinholtz, left, and Steve Jones assemble one of the DC Play Blocks as Eric Silberhorn watches.
Matt Barinholtz, left, and Steve Jones assemble one of the DC Play Blocks as Eric Silberhorn watches. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Think of it as a serious version of Party Animals and PandaMania.

Those two public art projects, which hit the D.C. streets in 2002 and 2004, respectively, brought dozens of fun, painted fiber glass animals to the city and were meant to be entertaining and whimsical, organizers said then.

The new project, to be unveiled late this month, has a bit more hard-hitting subject: the need for better-quality education for infants and toddlers in the District.

Concern that Americans don't understand the importance of early education inspired "DC Play Blocks," 22 waist-high (if you're an adult) cubes painted by local artists on three sides and a plexiglass mirror on the fourth for little people to look into. A sentence is printed across the mirrored side: "Every child is a national treasure."

Inspired by the two previous projects, the 36-inch, square DC Play Blocks will be drilled into cement stands and placed in public spots in each of the city's eight wards by the end of this month. But first, they had to be assembled, which is why artists and carpenters spent a sweaty Saturday yesterday in a municipal parking lot on S Street NW with drills, glue and a trash barrel full of iced water bottles.

Kamau Frank Benjamin, an artist and former D.C. public high school counselor, said that because an essential part of children's education is for them to know where they came from, his acrylic panels include children looking backward -- symbolically toward their culture and history. Also looking backward in one panel was a sankofa, a mythical West African bird that is always mindful of its history.

Benjamin's panels also include realistic-looking children playing together alongside cartoonish images of what look like stuffed animals and African symbols, including Egyptian pyramids and suns.

"They need a sense of self," Benjamin said, his three panels leaning against a table, in line to be bolted to strong synthetic material panels and built into a cube. "If we [artists] don't have a message in what we do, what's the point? That's why I did the blocks."

The project is being put on by GCH Endowment, a new nonprofit group created to advocate improved educational programs for children from birth until kindergarten. The program is also supported by sponsors, such as Freddie Mac and the International Union of Bricklayers, who each paid $5,000 to adopt a block. The sponsor's name is written on the top, skyward panel of the cube, along with the campaign's main message: "Quality Preschool Matters." The idea is that pre-K education is a fundamental building block for kids.

The blocks won't be as prevalent as the pandas in PandaMania or the Party Animals; there were 150 pandas and 200 donkeys and elephants, compared with 22 play blocks. To get the best visibility, organizers are putting the blocks at seven Metro stations as well as outside Eastern Market, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and places with child-care facilities, including the Ronald Reagan Building.

Bobbi Blok (yes, that's her real name), chief executive and president of GCH Endowment, said that although Washington is "in the forefront" in early education in many ways, there are major problems with quality -- in the District and nationwide. All programs, whether they are run by the city or private, home day-care providers, need sufficient materials, funding, standards and assessments, the same as classrooms need from kindergarten on, she said.

"People don't think of little ones as learning," Blok said. "But the reality is, studies show that during ages zero to 5, there is more brain development than during any other time. If you don't do it, afterwards you're playing catch-up later when they drop out of high school."

In addition to the citywide unveiling late this month, events are scheduled, including "block parties" in each neighborhood, where advocates will talk about early education, and a summit with city and educational leaders in the fall.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company