How Architecture Is Catalyzing Experiential Learning in Ghana

The Mmofra Foundation is working tirelessly to incorporate imaginative play into the cognitive and physical development of children in Ghana.

Kweku Addo-Atuah Kweku Addo-Atuah

Trailblazing writer and dramatist Efua T. Sutherland represented Ghana when it led the world in ratifying the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC) in 1989. The CRC ratification underscored Sutherland’s commitment to the nurturing of young minds and bodies through experiential play, following her collaboration with expatriated American photographer Willis Bell in a photo essay, Playtime in Africa (1962). In some 40 pages of stunning black-and-white photographs partnered with prose poems, the book archived imaginative play in a wide range of settings throughout newly independent Ghana.

Bell Images from Playtime in Africa (1962); copyright Mmofra Foundation

Sutherland’s lifelong activism and work as a community and cultural builder is reflected in her legacy project, the Mmofra Foundation, established in 1997. Mmofra (“children” in Ghana’s Akan language) drew upon her reputation as Ghana’s premier child advocate, with a multifaceted career that pioneered a postcolonial indigenous movement in writing, film, publishing and tenureship in various public service capacities. Set in a two-acre plot in the Dzorwulu (pronounced Jor-wu-loo) neighborhood of Accra, Ghana, Mmofra Foundation seeks to enrich the lives of children, grounding them and encouraging creative interaction with their cultural and physical environments.

Although Sutherland has since passed, her children, two of whom are Ghana-based, Esi Sutherland-Addy (educationist, African Studies expert), Ralph (architect) and Spokane, Washington–based Amowi S. Phillips (lawyer, adjunct professor) keep her vision alive. Through their collective efforts and collaborations with local and international visual and dramatic artists, storytellers and academics, Mmofra has had tremendous impact, recording 20,000 children visits to its outdoor-based programs. Mmofra Foundation has hosted a plethora of events, ranging from art and photo exhibitions, audio-visual and illustrator production/workshops, theater arts and book programs to a multimedia public health campaign that reached 10,000 students.

Key views from the site, which is relatively flat, has a high water table and hosts a rich variety of planting species via ASLA and issuu

The two-acre Dzorwulu site, offered for public use by the Sutherland estate, has become an experimental testing ground for learning through sensory, social and physical play, one highly responsive to Ghana’s aesthetic, cultural and form-making heritage. Mmofra Foundation’s current focus is on transforming the site into a fully designed natural play environment. To be named Mmofra Place, the design concept takes inspiration from Sutherland and Bells’ Playtime in Africa, seeking to translate these play archives into actual 21st-century spatial experiences. A May 2012 design charrette set the ball rolling, a three-day event that drew a crowd of local and international architects, engineers, artists and educators as well as teenagers and community leaders. The charrette yielded a concept plan, which aside from the primary function as an outdoor learning space, began to address issues of sustainability, context-sensitive construction and resource management.

Sampling of Ghana’s key aesthetics, architectural and sculptural forms, including the Kente Cloth and Adinkra Symbols; images via Pinterest, Wikimedia, Overstock, CulturalEncyclopaedia, Antique decor and Pinterest

Playtime in Africa Concept Plan derived from charrette via Mmofra Foundation

Since the charrette, the site has hosted a number of exciting built prototypes, which have arisen out of various collaborations. Each of these prototypes is unique in form and function but at their core, are clear references and homages to Ghana’s aesthetic and cultural traditions. One such prototype is the reclaimed coconut husk acoustic panel pavilion designed by Ghanaian Ph.D. architecture student Mae-Ling Lokko in collaboration with her classmates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Through this process of upcycling — transform waste into high-quality building material — Lokko and her team turned these coconut husks into a hardy material as structurally sound and resistant quality as brick.

The pavilion has a sinuous geometry to it, has a burlap internal shell with the coconut husk as its visible façade. It is designed to assemble easily without need for screws, parts or nuts and bolts, instead relying on sorption technology similar to how LEGO pieces fit together. Installed first at a street festival, it was relocated to the Dzorwulu property to serve as a “hands-on learning” experience as part of a children’s climate education exhibition. The pavilion shows great promise in jumpstarting an innovative upcycling strategy throughout the design and construction of the natural play space.

AMBIS Coconut Pavilion via NexusNY and Facebook

A month-long partnership with six architecture students from the Technical University of Delft yielded a high-priority play prototype called the “Ananse Cube.” The TU Delft team drew upon the input gleaned from their participatory interview and research sessions, which told them of Ananse. Ananse in Ghanaian folklore is a famed trickster, a spider pretending to be a man, who gets himself out of sticky situations with his cleverness and quick wit. The Ananse Cube spatializes these tales through a cubic structure and multicolored patterned ropes that reference a spider’s web. The play structure intends to support free play for children, encouraging spatial awareness, cognitive and fine/gross motor skills through such exercises as creating 3D forms and pathways that connect one side of the cube to another. Learn more here.

TU Delft + Mmofra’s Foundation Ananse Cube prototype via CargoCollective

Yet another fruitful collaboration was with a 24-student North Carolina State University (NCSU) team supervised by Kofi Boone. Similar to TU Delft students, the NCSU team focused their interventions on knowledge derived from interactions with park stakeholders as grounding for design concepts and fabrications. Using recycled wooden spools, one student solution created a double-sided seat for use as an intimate reading nook nestled amongst the large trees on-site. Another student solution focused on combining sensory and kinetic learning based on a calabash form. See more of the project here.

A calabash has variable use in Ghanaian society, from drinking gourds, food bowls to musical instruments. Inspired by the Kora, the students developed a calabash string instrument that encourages children’s exploration with sound across a range of material types. Tested on site, the design offered children a chance to create sounds with calabashes filled with either pebbles or with water as well as turned upside down for use as a drum or by plucking the strings attached to the calabash.

Left to right: NCSU’s Reading Nook and Calabash String Instrument prototypes via Facebook and ASLA

Through their work, Mmofra Foundation continues to find out about similar projects in other parts of Africa, such as South Sudan and Senegal. A fully realized natural play space, expanding upon the ideas and lessons from the aforementioned prototypes, will serve as a model for child-centered spaces in Ghana and Africa at large. These sorts of projects help legitimize Africa’s role in the global conversation about spaces for imaginative play and discovery. The cultural and social implications for this kind of learning and play environment are immense.

Play is a powerful socioeconomic leveler, drawing children from all kinds of backgrounds and economic realities, who can lose themselves, even for just a little bit, in the wonders of a thoughtfully designed multidimensional and sensory environment. The future for Mmofra Foundation’s Playtime in Africa initiative looks bright but of course, the foundation welcomes your support. Opportunities to help are numerous, from telling the world about this initiative, to on-the-ground design and construction to sharing ideas, skills and funding sources. To learn more about how you can help, click here.

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