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The gift of play: Amherst woodworker’s ‘baby cubes’ bring physical activities and joy to preschool settings

  • Toma Negishi, 2, plays on a swing which is part of a playscape built and donated by Tom Murphy to the REACH program in Northampton. His mother, Ayaka Negishi, is with him. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ball Stomp, a wooden toy made by Tom Murphy, owner of Bogin Playscape Project. His toys and playscapes are made to encourage a child’s physicality. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Murphy, owner of Bogin Playscape Project, works on one of his wooden toys called a Bottle Baby Truck. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Toma Negishi,2, plays on a swing which is part of a playscape built and donated by Tom Murphy to the REACH program in Northampton. His mother, Ayaka Negishi, is with him. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Murphy, owner of Bogin Playscape Project, works on one of his wooden toys called a Bottle Baby Truck. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A wooden animal matching game and Ball Stomp made by Tom Murphy, owner of Bogin Playscape Project. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A wooden animal matching game by Tom Murphy, owner of Bogin Playscape Project, and painted by his daughter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Toma Negishi, 2, at top left, plays on a swing held by his mom, Ayaka Negishi, that’s part of a playscape built and donated by Tom Murphy to the REACH program in Northampton. Above, Toma sizes up a ramp on the apparatus. At left, Murphy works on one of his wooden toys called a bottle baby truck. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Toma Negishi, 2, climbs up a playscape built and donated by Tom Murphy to the REACH program in Northampton. His mother, Ayaka Negishi, is with him. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2021

NORTHAMPTON — Pure joy crosses 2-year-old Toma Negishi’s face as he gets on the platform swing in the playroom at the REACH Early Intervention program in Northampton.

“He loves being on the swing,” says his mother, Ayaka Negishi, who observed and guided Toma while on the swing. Toma also climbed the steps to a landing on the wooden play structure to which the swing is attached.

For Tom Murphy, an Amherst woodworker who recently retired after 26 years as an occupational therapist at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, making these play structures, or “baby cubes,” as they are called, is a labor of love. They provide fun for toddler playgroups and also can be beneficial to the development of young children who need more indoor places to move and explore.

“This stuff is designed to go in a preschool where they are learning how to carry things and push things,” Murphy said.

Murphy founded the Bogin Playscape Project to build the play structures that include the swing, a “bottle baby truck” that can be pulled, and places for children to use their muscles by climbing up and sliding down. Block games with wooden blocks, as well as the plastic bottles on board the bottle baby truck, give children the chance to manipulate small objects with their hands.

At REACH Early Intervention, a program of ServiceNet that has sites in Northampton and North Amherst, the play structures have been used for more than eight years, said Prity Shah, director for REACH in Hampshire County.

The play structures give children up to 3 years old a place to use their gross motor skills, she said. The swing, for instance, is an aspect many children crave, but others might fear riding it. Being just six inches off the ground, though, can give all children comfort on the swing.

For older children, the platform can be a place for social activity where they can learn to talk to each other, Shah said. For infants, the ramp on the play structure can improve their shoulder girdle stability as babies learn to crawl. The gentle slide is also the right slope; many playgrounds and parks are geared toward much older children.

“There’s a lot of variety we can do with it,” Shah said. “It just makes it fun.”

Heather Leaf, assistant team leader at REACH, said parents appreciate how they can build the parent-child relationship at the structure.

“It’s a wonderful thing to see parents take pride in their children as they slide down,” Leaf said. “It’s a safe place for them to practice.”

“I just love the REACH program so much,” Negishi said of the experience. “Toma has such good support.”

For Murphy, who trained as a furniture designer, his Bogin Playscape Project is much more than just the play structures. He has already built and donated nearly 300 “bottle baby trucks,” “ball stomps” and “ball ramps” to day care providers and preschools, with a nontoxic finish made with a cheese byproduct on the wooden pieces, which are are smooth and without sharp edges.

Recently finishing one of the bottle baby trucks, Murphy placed 12 plastic seltzer bottles in the openings so children can have something they can manipulate with their hands and something heavy to push or pull around. With so much of childhood being virtual, Murphy said, this kind of play is beneficial.

“Kids need to move heavy things. The way childhood has changed too much, kids don’t get a chance to see how heavy things are,” Murphy said.

The ball stomps force children to coordinate placing a ball on one end and then jumping on the other, trying to catch the ball in their hands. The ball ramps are similar to Pinewood Derby events in Cub Scouts, where a ball or small car can run down the track.

Everything that Murphy develops he can afford to give away, with the only cost his time.

The project’s origins date to September 2011 when he started a seminar with a small group of students from Smith College and Springfield College. The idea was to find ways to develop play equipment that could be used at preschools and similar settings, with the equipment safe, inexpensive, and able to be easily reproduced.

Murphy named his enterprise for Nancy Bogin, an early childhood educator and mentor in New Rochelle, New York, who died in 2009. She was the first person who hired him to work when he was 16.

Before beginning the project, Murphy designed and built playscapes for programs in New Rochelle and Bronx, New York in the 1970s, and spent 12 years as a rehabilitation engineer designing wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment for disabled individuals.

Murphy has found that getting playscapes into schools can be challenging due to changing regulations and safety considerations.

“They don’t allow kids to be kids anymore,” Murphy said.

His woodwork also includes a matching game featuring animal illustrations on small squares about the size of a coaster that have been painted by his daughter, Helen. The idea is to take the squares and hide them. The children then choose an animal block, painted with images of tigers, lions, giraffes, elephants, monkeys or zebras, and search around the room for the matching animal.

Murphy’s project also has been supported by late Amherst resident Charlie Parham who, following his 2019 death, has had a portion of the Bogin Playscape Project called Charlie’s Toys. Those who donated in Parham’s memory have allowed Murphy to get materials needed for the project.

In August, Murphy completed an indoor playscape for the Northern Berkshire Early Intervention Program in North Adams that is called Charlie’s Playground.

“He lives on in his playground,” Murphy said.

Donations can continue to be made to the Bogin Playscape Project through The Collaborative for Educational Services at 97 Hawley St. in Northampton.

The next projects Murphy has lined up are for the Amherst Montessori School and for the preschool toddler room at the Center School in Greenfield. Murphy said he hopes to create ongoing connections with both schools.

But Murphy also wants to inspire others to build similar play structures, and he will be leading a training next spring and workshops with preschools.

“My goal is to build them and then have people copy them,” Murphy said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.