School children on Quebec's North Shore help design playgrounds that reflect Innu culture

From simple crayon drawings, elementary school students in the Innu community of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam got to see their ideas for the perfect playground come to life.

2 Quebec elementary schools teamed up with architecture students to give their play areas a facelift

Dayana Grégoire, a 10-year-old student at Johnny-Pilot elementary school in Uashat, submitted this drawing to help inspire university architecture students to build her new playground. (Submitted by Mathieu Avarello)

Not only do the kids in the Innu community of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, on Quebec's North Shore, have a brand new playground this year, they also get to boast that they helped design it and build it themselves.

It only took two school days to transform the playgrounds at Johnny-Pilot elementary school in Uashat, and Tshishteshinu​ school in neighbouring Mani-Utenam.

The play modules were built by architecture students from Quebec City's Université Laval and Laurentian University, in Sudbudy Ontario, based on drawings submitted by the students.

"We got some very realistic drawings, very surreal drawings, and they were all very inspiring," said Mathieu Avarello, a student-researcher in architecture at Université Laval.

By tapping into the young minds, Avarello said his teammates saw certain recurring themes, like circles, integrated in the children's designs.

Kids from the community got to help build the play modules they had helped design. (Submitted by Mathieu Avarello)

"It's something that maybe they're not even aware of, but it's there," he said.

The circle, a strong symbol of equality and sharing in Innu culture, was then transposed into the play modules.

Another structure was built to replicate the shape of a Shaputuan tent, the traditional long tents used by Innu people for gatherings and community meals.

One of the new modules in the playground of the Johnny-Pilot elementary school in Uashat replicates the shape of a traditional Shaputuan tent. (Marc-Antoine Mageau/Radio-Canada)

Avarello said the research team also consulted with the community at large, as well as the school principals, to make sure the playground would meet their needs and be culturally appropriate.

"A lot of the teachers especially are really putting an emphasis on traditional knowledge and culture, especially for the Innu language," Avarello said.

Reflecting Innu culture

The design competition was part of a research partnership called Living in Northern Quebec, aimed at promoting sustainable and culturally appropriate development.

Avarello said this "co-construction of knowledge" is important in the way architects should envision their work in Northern communities.

"The fact that it's personalized and, I would say, culturally appropriate, it adds a whole layer of significance to it," he said.

'Only a basketball hoop'

The schools initially reached out to the research project, which encompasses several universities, architecture schools and government agencies.

Traditional symbols from Innu culture, like the circle, were a recurrent theme in several drawings. (Design by 10-year-old Nathan Regis) (Submitted by Mathieu Avarello)

The principal at Tshishteshinu​​ school, Ingrid Tshirnish, said the playground was in dire need of a facelift.

The school had to expand last year to welcome more students, but they didn't have any access to outdoor activities.

"We didn't have any play modules in the school year for older students, just one basketball hoop," she said.

Most of the structures were made out of natural materials like wood, instead of plastic. (Submitted by Mathieu Avarello)

The principal at Johnny-Pilot, Heidi Vachon, said she was happy to see the fence that separated the older and younger students come down.

"We want the playground to be a place where they can be together. Family is an important value for Innu people, it means sharing and supporting each other," said Vachon.

She said she hopes this marks the beginning of more projects in the community to help youth celebrate their culture.

"We dream of urban planning projects that respect Innu values, and the transmission of the culture."

With files from Quebec AM and Radio-Canada