January 30, 2023
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Cal Poly students tap crowdfunding to build playground in South Africa


Swings for Dreams co-founders Mike Aguas and Nick Tuttle with two kids from the Ratang Bana Orphanage in Alexandra Township, South Africa. (courtesy photo)

Swings for Dreams co-founders Mike Aguas and Nick Tuttle with two kids from the Ratang Bana Orphanage in Alexandra Township, South Africa. (courtesy photo)


A group of Cal Poly landscape architecture students and alumni are working to make the world a better place, one playground at a time.

Swings for Dreams, founded by current Cal Poly students Mike Aguas and Nick Tuttle, wants to build sustainable and culturally sensitive playgrounds in impoverished communities around the world. Their first project is in Nieu Bethesda, South Africa, and they currently have an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign underway to raise $30,000.

“It’s really about using our skills as landscape architects to do something good,” Aguas said.

He and Tuttle are current students at Cal Poly. Some of the members of their team of eight full-time volunteers are alumni. What they all have in common is a desire to address a simple but essential need in every child’s life: play.

Even when they’re just having fun, children are learning. Traversing the monkey bars or soaring on the swings is all part of intellectual and physical development. “They’re developing their mental, social and physical skills,” Tuttle said.

But when he and Aguas traveled to South Africa last year as part of an internship, they were shocked by the lack of basic necessities. “The kids had nothing, the play area was a landfill, littered with trash, there were sharp animal bones … there was just nothing,” Aguas said.

That first visit to the country was part of an internship with a Cal Poly professor. They built a sustainable play space for an orphanage in a township where many of the children have been left parentless by the country’s sweeping AIDS epidemic.

They’ve now taken that initiative into their own hands and have launched Swings for Dreams, for which they’re currently seeking 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Getting tax-exempt status will allow the group to go after larger corporate and personal donations, the founders said. In the meantime, they’ve turned to crowdfunding.

All proceeds from the Indiegogo round will go toward funding the project this summer. The project costs include materials and heavy equipment to build elements such as climbing structures, shaded lunch areas, a sports field and botanical gardens.

As of May 7, with 34 days still to go on the crowdfunding campaign, Swings for Dreams had raised about $2,500. Aguas said the group expects to reach the $30,000 goal easily and that it already has plans for future projects in Uganda, Mexico and Brazil.

But their efforts also reach closer to home. The Cal Poly students are working with high-school students at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara to teach them landscape design skills and have them help with fundraising efforts for the playground projects. The Swings for Dreams Juniors program, as it’s called, at Dos Pueblos will be used as a model to expand to five high schools.

There’s more to designing a playground than you may think. Swings for Dreams takes a lot into consideration, including, first and foremost, what the local community wants.

Tuttle said that with the first playground project in South Africa, they were excited to see adults in the community who started to show up every day to help them build. “There were locals there every single day working alongside us,” he said.

In keeping with the standards they’re taught at Cal Poly, the architects survey the community members to find out what they actually want in a community space. The results can be intriguing. In the case of the first playground, the Cal Poly students set out to find what sorts of games the kids liked to play.

They found that the kids enjoyed finding discarded plastic sheets and using them to slide down a steep hill. So the architects built a structure that was shaped like a ship — the students could slide down the sails and into the ship’s hull.

The climate in that region of South Africa is also exceptionally hot and arid, which meant that teachers kept the students inside for most of the day. But the Cal Poly group decided to incorporate shaded outside areas where the students could still play and learn about agriculture and water reclamation while being shaded from the most intense rays of the sun.

“We design for the community because the site is theirs when we leave,” Aguas said.

Find out more about Swings for Dreams on the group’s website.

The group’s crowdfunding campaign is on Indiegogo.

And here’s a video:

Indiegogo from Swings For Dreams on Vimeo.