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Downtown day camp provides kids opportunity to shape our city

A new urban-focused day camp offers children an opportunity to learn about downtown Grand Rapids and provide input into its growth and development.
Day campers skip stones in the Grand River

Day campers skip stones in the Grand River /Lynee Wells

GR Forward Downtown Master Plan

Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. and other local partners have embraked upon a process to shape the future of Downtown Grand Rapids, the Grand River and our nearby public education opportunities. The effort is called GR Forward.

The public input phase is happening now. A storefront retail space has been transformed into a publc input activity center. Please bring your family, neighbors, friends and others to the space to learn more about our city and to share your dreams for its future. 

The storefront is in the CWD building at the corner of Ionia and Lewis, just north of Fulton Street. 

Hours are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 3-7 p.m. until November 21. 

Campers take the scenic route through downtown

Campers take the scenic route through downtown /Lynee Wells

A young journalist reflects on her day exploring downtown Grand Rapids

A young journalist reflects on her day exploring downtown Grand Rapids /Lynee Wells

It wasn’t the layers of grime on my son’s face and clothes or the continuous recap of a day spent on the farm at Blandford. Nor was it the tie-dyeing of t-shirts or Friday afternoon vegetable sale that stirred something inside me about the discovery and learning that happens at a day camp.

It was the journaling. Journaling? At age 7, my son is journaling?

Yes, each day at Blandford Farm Camp Nicholas found his place in the meadow and wrote or drew pictures about his experience. I was jealous. Who has time in their busy day to journal?

As we left Blandford that day and headed east towards home traversing the city, crossing the river and passing my office, it hit me. Why couldn’t I journal? And more importantly, why couldn’t I journal with kids about the place I love most, our city?

These questions provided the impetus for a new kind of experience - a kid focused urban day camp.  I would design a day of city exploration full of observation, hands-on involvement and of course, reflective journaling about the entire experience. 

GR Urban Explorers was born. 

With the help of colleagues from Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., The Rapid, Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition and my firm Williams & Works, who donated t-shirts, hats, backpacks and journals, we organized a downtown day camp for 11 kids, ages 5-7.

We learned a lot that day about kids and cities, and cities and kids. We know for these kids, buses are cool… really cool. Not only do they enjoy riding in the massive vehicle, they love the anticipation of the bus’ arrival, especially when it’s the Silver Line and you’re standing on a platform. Platforms make you feel very important. As we invest in our transit, we must remember that even kids appreciate dignified, predictable and comfortable rides.

We learned sometimes all you need is a little break, and there is no better place to get your energy out than throwing stones into the Grand River. The ability to walk down to the river’s edge and touch the water has profound emotional and psychological benefits. After this respite, where some kids even took off their shoes, I noticed a renewed sense of composure.

The escape to the river recharged these kids and rooted them in the moment. There were no complaints, no requests to leave and most importantly no distractions as they focused their energy on the water and the task of skipping stones. As we plan for the river and its edges, we must enhance our ability to readily touch and feel its beauty.

Kids treat every curb, bollard, water feature, wall, light pole and bike rack as a mini Olympic challenge. In addition to needing more un-programmed green spaces and parks in downtown (we are actually deficient compared to recommended national standards), we need public plazas with movable seating, well designed hardscapes and spaces to run and jump. This is an important consideration when designing public spaces. Spaces for kids to explore allow their parents time to linger longer, and it’s good to have people- of all ages- lingering in your city.  

At the offices of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. the campers participated in a mini Downtown Master Plan visioning process. Kids have great ideas. We learned even they want to see more retail downtown. These little citizens also want things like skateparks and swimming pools, and they realize that a walkable and bikeable city means fewer cars and less traffic.

And finally, for me, I discovered that to be a truly livable city, we have to reframe our decision-making process in favor of the pedestrian. We had two difficult moments walking through the city with the kids… two times when I screamed louder than I ever have before. The culprits: two lanes of speeding car traffic on a one-way street through the heart of Downtown’s pedestrian core, and unsafe walking conditions caused by a poorly-designed sidewalk closure at a construction site.

Downtown Grand Rapids continues to redevelop quickly, and our city leadership is receptive to new ideas. The momentum is invigorating. One of our greatest assets is the future generation. They help us discover how to become better people, and through the GR Urban Explorers Day Camp, they helped us discover how to become a better city. Let’s continue to move forward as a livable city, and let’s consider these lessons learned from our #citykids.

If you would like to become more involved in planning the future of our Downtown visit or to have your child join a day camp, send me a message through our Facebook event page.

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