TOWN 'N COUNTRY — For nine years, the Morgan Woods Park was vacant and largely forgotten.
But in 2016, the Florida Institute of Community Studies (FICS), a multi-cultural family center and private 501c3 nonprofit in Town 'N Country, assumed control of the land for use with its burgeoning group of children.
It was mostly a barren strip of real estate.
Can it really be a vibrant park without a playground?
Now that has changed.
FICS — through the financing of retail giant Target and a grant from national nonprofit KaBoom! — received an "Imagination Playground In A Cart.''
The playground consists of several dozen eclectic portable pieces — "It's like really, really big Legos,'' said one wide-eyed kid — that can be assembled into anything, then neatly cleaned up and packed into storage bins.
Possibilities are limited only by, well, someone's imagination.
"We loved having this outdoor space and it was great for our community garden and playing some soccer,'' FICS executive director Alayne Unterberger said. "But something was missing and we're so happy to have an incredibly creative way to use our space.
"The county has told us this (land) is too small for a playground. But now we have our playground and it's going to open up a whole new world for our kids.''
FICS, which also has a location in Ruskin, works to find social and economic solutions for immigrant families (from places such as Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela and assorted Caribbean islands) that have settled in Town 'N Country.
"We have parents from 36 different countries,'' Unterberger said. "These are primarily low-income families and they are seeking better outcomes for their children. We want to help in those areas and when we do, it creates community cohesion.
"This playground is going to help kids with problem solving. It's going to help them with their English because when you play together (with an English-speaking friend), you're going to learn new words. When people play together, it helps you learn someone else's strengths.''
Part of the goal for FICS (referred to as "fix'') is to establish a Friday late-afternoon period where parents can play alongside their children.
"Many of the grownups are out of the play mode, but it's helpful to rediscover it,'' Unterberger said. "It's like a big challenge. How do these things fit together? What can we actually build? It's fun.''
It also speaks to the STEAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). Research has shown that unstructured, child-directed play will help kids develop physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually.
"This is so good for all the kids,'' said Wendy Rosado, an FICS program assistant who has a 14-year-old child in the program. "They play, they learn and they share with the other kids. Other parents like to see that and it makes them more comfortable to be out here with us.
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"For us, this is not just another park. It's a place where our children have the opportunity to play, create, plan, learn, share ideas, work in teams and, above all, to be tolerant of the ideas of others. All the kids and parents will have a chance to interact and learn with each other.''
When the playground materials were finally unveiled on Valentine's Day — after a week of storage — there were shrieks and smiles all around.
"It's great to see the kids so excited,'' said Biena Mesa, who has an 8-year-old child in the program. "I think this will really motivate them. Anything that helps them to work together and share with each other, it's very, very positive.''
Unterberger has remained undaunted despite challenging budget-cutting times for her organization. She said FICS is always seeking donations and volunteers (ficsinc.org or facebook.com/FICScreates).
"Our kids and our community would benefit so much from any time, talent or funds that people can share with us,'' Unterberger said.
Judging from the first-day reaction, the Imagination Playground already has made a measurable impact.
"We used to have our kids in (an after-school program), where they were watched and there was structure, but not much else,'' said Hector Rivera, who has two children in the FICS program. "Here, they are more engaged. They are involved in the arts. They did a Christmas play.
"The playground, I think, is much more than a place to play and run around. It's making kids think and teaching them to build up stuff. And it teaches them how to work with each other. It's a beautiful thing.''
Contact Joey Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org.