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Reimagining Columbia's Tot Lots

With 50 years in the books, our tot lots are ready for a makeover. Our communities have shifted from when these play spaces were first designed, and it's time to look at what we could do better. The tot lots were designed to serve a certain era of stay at home moms and small toddlers, but our community needs have changed. The tot lots should too. For several years now, the CA board has attempted to revamp the tot lot policy without success.


Shortly before the pandemic, CA began an evaluation pilot in Oakland Mills, installing cameras to count the number of users. Just like everything else, this pilot was interrupted, partly because of the financial side effects of the pandemic, and no usable results were obtained.


This issue most recently rose to the public’s attention in Hickory Ridge with a stand off of sorts regarding the Sixpence Tot Lot, a beloved tot lot that had fallen into disrepair. Local residents desperately wanted to replace the extended structure with something equally as engaging for all levels but the options presented by CA fell short or required additional funding approval. This led to a years-long debate and delay. Ultimately, a metal and plastic structure of similar size was approved by the CA board, which is set to be installed this Spring, but many residents were left feeling nostalgic for the more attractive, open ended wooden fort. For more on the Sixpence Tot Lot, see “Sixpence Tot Lot in Clemens Crossing to Finally be Replace,” The Merriweather Post, October 15, 2022.


The current CA interim policy regarding tot lot repair and replacement includes:

  • Standardize play equipment for efficiency in space planning, purchasing, maintenance, and operations

  • Wooden play structures (forts and swings) will be replaced with pre-manufactured powder-coated metal and plastic units such as the “Rascal” and “Firefly.”

  • Intended age group of 2 to 5 year olds.

Representing the Open Space Committee of Oakland Mills, Bill McCormack and I spoke at the CA Work Session on February 9th about our goals with respect to restarting a tot lot evaluation pilot. Here is a link to watch our testimony. The Board was receptive and interested in further discussion on this issue. Some of the highlights that our committee presented included:

  1. Looking at land around the pools as potential opportunities for extended engagement, more than just a toddler sized play space but rather a gathering area for the entire community

  2. Create multigenerational opportunities- i.e. frisbee/soccer throwing areas, benches for visiting, chess/checker tables, exercise equipment, family swings, etc.

  3. The importance of unstructured play- different than canned play equipment with a number of activities, but rather open ended to encourage imagination and a broader range of age/ability engagement

  4. The potential to think beyond play spaces and consider turning certain tot lots into gardens (pollinator, rain, educational, etc) or nature spaces as the environment determines

  5. Educate residents about trends and possibilities being put into practice elsewhere and how we can apply new ideas to our old communities

Currently, there are 175 tot lots under CA ownership. Guided by resident engagement, an evaluation should be made as to whether all of these 175 tot lots are necessary and utilized or if there are better ways to use some of these common areas. Personally, I’m excited to imagine spaces that are open ended for children of all ages but also include ways that residents older than toddlers might enjoy the spaces too. I’d love to see spaces that invite grandparents and grandchildren to interact, draw adults to have a chat with a neighbor and all residents to stop for a rest in nature on a comfortable bench.


At the Board of Director’s meeting on February 23, the strategic direction of CA’s Play Areas was on the agenda. Three resolutions were voted upon:

  • Resolution 1: To continue implementing the interim tot lot policy until a new policy is developed except to include one additional fort structure to create a little more variety.

  • Resolution 2: To create a pilot within a single village to reimagine the tot lots and potentially replace redundant tot lots with improved amenities.

  • Resolution 3: To create a committee to draft a strategic plan to direct the play spaces for the next 20 years.

The first resolution passed 10-0 with a discussion regarding the simplicity of following the existing plan until a new strategic plan was developed. A concern was voiced that the existing plan isn’t creative enough to which Dennis Mattey, interim president, explained that he “could be a lot more creative with more money.” Other board members agreed that the Rascal and Firefly would suffice for the moment until a pilot is performed to come up with other solutions. Keith O’Neil from Kings Contrivance expressed support for a master plan but concerns about micromanaging operations by picking specific play structures.


The second resolution passed 10-0 after a discussion about timelines, with the Board and interim president, Dennis Mattey, agreeing that a year should be a reasonable amount of time to complete a pilot study. It is believed that Oakland Mills will be the village for the pilot considering the existing data but it was left to CA management to make it happen.


The third resolution did not pass, but rather it was decided to wait until the pilot is completed in order to avoid duplicity. The board agreed it was not prudent to begin a committee working on a strategic plan until they have results from the pilot.


I look forward to the creative possibilities that lay ahead with the start of a pilot to investigate other options for our play spaces. The play spaces have the potential to be gems of our neighborhoods and add a greater value to all residents.


About the author: Rebecca Bryant has been on the Oakland Mills Village Board for the past 4 years. She is a member of Yards Alive to inspire residents to garden sustainably and organizes bike corrals for BikeHoCo to inspire residents to drive less.


Public Park Chess/Checkers Table

Public Park Ping-Pong Table

Bench Swings Conversation Area

Simple Log Climbers that could be coupled with native plants

Hendricks Farm Nature Play Space in Quebec

A ministage / bench that surrounds a tree for performances and visiting

"Rascal" by Playtime, Inc. Standard Playground Equipment that CA is using to as tot lots come due for replacement.

7 Comments


Brian England
Brian England
Feb 27, 2023

I was thrilled with Rebecca’s and Bill‘s comments to CA Board and so glad that they will continue to build on what they started years ago, this has taken a long time! Oakland Mill has led in reimagining Columbia Open Space and it was only right they are going to continue to lead the way. Here is some background information on their effort.

In 2016 Gerry Witte who was on their Oakland Mills board and on their Open Space Committee reached out to me because he had heard that the HCCA New Town Committee was interested in similar ideas as part of an update on Columbia Planning. Gerry and I reached out to many leaders in our community for inpu…


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This is the same process that eventually lead to the reimagined/updated pools. Think the citizens of Columbia are happy with the new pool amenities. Give the process a chance.

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I think the comparison to the pools is apt but I disagree that the pools are an example of effective decision making. Its more that the pools and tot-lots are both examples of amenities where the board avoids tough choices (like closing some of the amenities) so we end up spending lots of money to maintain the lowest-common-denominator of amenity (pool or tot-lot) in whatever place it happened to be built decades ago without regard for whether anybody still uses it. It would be better to reduce quantity to increase quality.

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Katie Kirk
Katie Kirk
Feb 26, 2023

Love the pictures of other places to get a sense of what’s out there- endless possibilities! And open Ended play spaces are def great for more ages :)

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Wanda Prather
Wanda Prather
Feb 26, 2023

I think Rebecca's ideas are brilliant! Maybe the master plan could look at other sources of funding; like community/business/donor sponsors and let neighborhoods submit ideas for what they want, and neighborhood volunteers/scouts/businesses to help with construction?


Seems like also a no-brainer that the first thing needed is a count of how many people are actually using the tot lots. Very possible that 175 is more than are actually needed, but we don't really know, do we? And I think kids don't need 175 almost-identical metal slides. Variety would mean kids visiting friends in other neighborhoods would be able to have a new adventure!


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Jeremy Dommu
Jeremy Dommu
Feb 26, 2023

I'm onboard with these ideas Rebecca articulated in this article. And I don't think implementing these ideas would need to happen all at once - but slowly over time as tot lots come due for replacement, so I don't think the advocacy here is to spend tens of millions replacing tot lots all at once but to do so slowly over time. And I think the idea would be to reimagine these areas of open space - some would remain play structures but others could become conversation areas with interesting benches, others gardens, others game tables, etc. - and presumably, the cost of each of these is varied as well. I agree that a full understanding of costs, locations, ty…


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