At Whittier Recreation Center in Minneapolis, a group of elementary schoolers got a chance to break in some new equipment on Monday. Kids crowded in front of a new video camera and green-screen setup, giving the gear a test run with an improvised weather forecast and several dance numbers.
The controlled chaos was part of the grand opening of Spark’d Studio in Whittier. It’s a new youth space with computers, video cameras, audio equipment and a range of media and art classes. The parks board space is open for kids to drop by after school for free.
Whittier’s Spark’d Studio is the third of its kind in Minneapolis; the city will have six by 2025.
Parks and Recreation Board Superintendent Al Bangoura said this is different from typical rec center programming, which usually offers sports and outdoor activities.
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“We talk about transforming recreation, what it means — it’s really meeting youth where they are today,” Bangoura said. “If we’re going to meet young people where they are, we’re giving them opportunities to do something really creative, to explore their imagination.”
Bangoura started workshopping the idea when he took the superintendent position in 2019. He pitched the idea of offering more art, tech, and media programming to Mayor Jacob Frey.
Frey spoke at the opening of the Whittier studio. He said this is an important step in giving kids more chances to explore their interests.
“When I thought about recreation, I thought about a combination of sports and music,” Frey said. “What [Bangoura] explained to me is that we have to meet young people not where they were 15 and 20 years ago, but where they are right now.”
The studios and staff are funded by an annual tax levy, which gets the program $2.6 million in funding each year.
Ezra Maddox works at Whittier’s Spark’d Studio. They teach a range of skills, from audio production to photography to 3D printing.
Maddox said that they try to design projects that play to the kids’ interests. For a sound design project, staff ask kids to practice skills using their favorite songs; a coding project might incorporate a popular video game.
“It’s super fun,” Maddox said. “Especially when you get to know the kids, then it gets easier to hype them up.”
At one center that’s already up-and-running, kids hosted a Mario Kart competition, and the winner took home a student-designed 3D printed trophy. Over the summer, youth put together a zine with drawings and collages.
Programs are aimed for kids between about ten and nineteen years old. They can stop by and work on their own projects, join a class, or get guidance from the site staff.
Bangoura said the variety of options at the studios make them a special place for kids.
“There’s so many different things for them to do,” Bangoura said. “That’s what keeps kids interested. And if we’re fighting for our kids to have a place where they feel safe and they’re connected, we have to be able to provide a spot that will interest them.”
By 2025, the city will have six studios operating across the city. Studios are already open at Powderhorn Park and Harrison Recreation Center, in addition to the Whittier location. In the next two years, the city plans to open studios at Luxton Recreation Center, Phillips Community Center and Graco Park.