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What Do You See?

Ahead of the 2024 Home for Good fundraiser, Henrico CASA has embraced its mission to “Change a Child’s Story” by adopting a children's storybook theme for this year's Playhouse project, drawing inspiration from the best loved tales that spark imagination.

The selected inspiration was Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, an iconic children’s picture book by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Eric Carle, chosen not only for its narrative but also for its distinctive aesthetic. Carle’s illustrations, with their vibrant, textured colors, unveil a new creature on each page, inviting young readers into a visually engaging world. The story concludes with a delightful twist where the creatures gaze back at the children, effectively breaking the ‘fourth wall’ and extending the story beyond the pages into the real world.

Echoing this theme of exploration and surprise, "What Do You See" (or Brown Bear’s Cave) was crafted to enhance a child’s exploration through space, color, and texture. Each element of the playhouse—from the secret red door and wooden tunnel with yellow accents, to the green “rope chimney” leading to a blue-windowed platform, down to an orange bed framed with white netting—promises a discovery at every turn. The playhouse is studded with modular plywood blocks that children can remove, sit on, climb on, or stack, adding a playful, puzzle-like element to their interaction.

From the outside, the façade fascinates just as much. Cedarwood slat panels hint at the experience inside, much like the cover of the book teases its contents. Large, sliding polycarbonate doors, though transparent, distort the view from the outside, preserving the mystery until opened. This design choice embodies the idea of physically “breaking” the walls to extend the play experience outward.

The compact 8 ft x 8 ft installation utilizes a minimal yet richly textured material palette. The interior is constructed with donated lumber treated with a durable exterior stain and plywood boards that form the floors, tunnel, and ceiling. The “rope chimney” and bed-like platform are surrounded by specialty cargo netting, built to withstand rigorous play. A slanted polycarbonate roof caps the structure, filling the interior with natural light throughout the day.

The structure serves multiple functions: vertical supports hold the modular cedarwood façade, while horizontal blockings add structural integrity and create openings for the cored plywood blocks. To preserve the wood’s natural look while adding vibrancy, the wood was treated with colored stains rather than paint, a nod to Carle’s vivid illustrations.

This amalgamation of textures and spaces creates a highly sensory experience inspired by Montessori’s educational model that encourages learning through free physical activity, touch, and hands-on experiences. Children's right to play is emphasized alongside their right to learn, blending both into the experience of the playhouse which provides nooks and crannies to play, read, learn, and relax—inside the tunnel, on the elevated platform, or on (or under) the white cargo net; by themselves or with their parents or caretakers.

The playhouse, designed by several of Hanbury's young designers and built by DPR Construction, supports Henrico CASA's mission to "change a child's story." The organization advocates for children affected by abuse and neglect, aiming to restore their right to a joyful childhood. “What Do You See” enhances this mission by providing a dynamic space where children can play and learn, reflecting the advocacy for children’s rights through a thoughtful design that encourages active engagement.

“What Do You See” will be displayed at the Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, VA, from April 11th to April 28th.

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