Playgrounds by Ryerson rooted in lifetime of outdoor play, with wood as toys, tools

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As a child growing up in Cambridge, Mitch Ryerson loved spending time outdoors and being inventive by collecting sticks, improvising play in the woods, digging caves and hanging hammocks in trees.

Today, Ryerson is giving back to his hometown by building artwork for a new generation of children to climb over, jump from and crawl around.

Ryerson, 59, is behind a set of artworks that function as playgrounds across five parks in Cambridge and Boston – using his artistry to stir youthful imagination.

“I hope [the kids] have fun and find ways to keep using the parks, so that it is not a one-stop deal,” he said of his installations.

Ryerson, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, recently was given an Honoree Spirit Award from Maud Morgan Arts, a Cambridge community arts center, for embodying the award theme this year: “Art at the heart of the community.”

Marsha Kardon, whose young grandson plays at one of Ryerson’s playgrounds in Alberico Park, said the park sparks the toddler’s imagination and helps him to interact with other children.

“He loves crawling around the hills. There are a lot of kids here, too. Some parks you go to are empty,” Kardon said.

As a young man, Ryerson moved to Maine to study boat building. He remained in that industry for four years before returning to Cambridge, building outdoor furniture before beginning the playground art about 10 years ago. He now focuses on the playground sculptures, while continuing to craft outdoor furniture such as benches made for parks.

Most of Ryerson’s playground sculptures are made of lumber from trees that have been cut down due to disease. Richly textured, with an earthy feel, the sculptures keep their bulky log appearance and are shaped in ways that give children room to navigate.

Although his main goal is to create a stimulating play space, Ryerson said safety is a priority.

“Playgrounds go through a pendulum swing between safety and adventure and challenge,” he said.

Ryerson’s works are in Alberico Park, Fulmore Park and Cambridge Common. His other sculptures are in playgrounds in the Boston Esplanade and Jamaica Plain. Two more are planned for Watertown and Brookline.

Ryerson said he likes the idea of locating his playgrounds in larger city parks that attract people of all ages.

“There are a lot of things people want out of parks, and it is impossible to meet all those needs. But I think if you meet enough of them so that people feel welcome, then the community adopts the park,” he said.

Of his play spaces, he added, “I hope it is a place where lots of people of different ages can come and hang out.”

Ryerson said the Maud Morgan Arts award meant a lot to him, as Cambridge was “a great place to grow up.”

This story was produced under a partnership with Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

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