Co.Design

Rockwell's Imagination Playground Is a Cutting-Edge Learning Experiment

The new space is meant to encourage imaginative, creative play with huge moveable blocks.

Kids connect foam noodles that look like pool toys to square cubes with cutout openings; others mash together piles of sand and water inside a fortress of moveable parts they just built.

It sounds like an expensive day care or a water park—but it's latest New York City public park, the Imagination Playground, which opens today at South Street Seaport (pictured above). Both the city and the designers, The Rockwell Group, hope it'll become a new paradigm in how kids play.

The multi-level, sculpted 18,000 square foot park consists of hundreds of moveable, flexible pieces of foam and fabric, and specific areas for water and sand and a place to where kids can mix the two and come up with their own fun. New York architect David Rockwell got the idea for a site-specific, interactive park after becoming a father a few years ago.

"I started to spend a lot more time at playgrounds," Rockwell says. "And I began to see that [his kids] played most intently when they were using their creative skills and making up what they were doing."

Yet what he saw at most public playgrounds were linear post-and-play experiences, where kids primarily developed motor skills—climbing, sliding, swinging, balancing—on a set of fixed equipment. "They had a sameness to their structures," he says. Play experiences were more familiar than varied; left-brain thinking wasn't encouraged.

"We wanted a park that not only lets [kids] be active in exercising their bodies and muscles but also exercising their minds and creativity."

Liability issues have largely prevented public interactive or adventure-type playgrounds from gaining much momentum in the United States. In less litigious Europe they're wildly popular; the concept first grew organically from sites where children played and created in post-war rubble and debris. Today, they're more organized with kids getting hammers, nails and paint to use.


[Above and below: The playground parts during various testing sessions]

So what's an architect-father-living-in-New-York to do? Rockwell decided to approach the city with some ideas for an adventure park. His firm, Rockwell Group, had done some well-known and large-scale projects before, such as the state-of-the art, Carl Sagan-inspired Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx and the observation deck at Ground Zero. And it was projects like those that inspired him to be proactive in his community, he says, "and not just wait for the phone to ring."

He offered to do the work pro bono, sketching hundreds of different ways kids could play. He also found a city Parks Department open to his ideas—unlike famed architect Louis Kahn and designer Isamu Noguchi, who met considerable public and government resistance in the 1960s to their plans for a landscaped playground with a conical mountain structure, sand play area and free-standing Noguchi-designed structures for Riverside Park. Ultimately, after several years of scaling down and concessions by the designers, the playground was scrapped. But when Rockwell started talks with the city, its Parks officials were already exploring similar concepts for playgrounds on their own.

Rockwell calls the process "collaborative?: he sent the city some sketches, they made suggestions, he made suggestions. Some of the main concerns had to do with maintenance and upkeep. The playground also had to win approval from the landmarks board, which required its exterior fit in with the surrounding historic character of the seaport. That meant a design that maintained the plaza-like feel, incorporate cobblestone on walkways, and liberal use of wood decking and black painted metal " just like the nearby piers. And he learned using loose parts didn't have to meet the stricter compliance overseeing fixed-to-the-ground play equipment.

To do his own research, Rockwell talked to child development and play experts such as author Susan Soloman, U.K. adventure playground operator Penny Wilson and CUNY graduate school professor Roger Hart. They advised him to create a playground that had loose parts, encouraged unstructured, self-directed play, and let kids manipulate their own environment. Larger pieces encouraged more collaborative play. Some suggestions, such as creating a big dirt field and letting kids use recycled objects didn't make the final cut.

Rockwell and his team made some early prototypes and then studied kids? responses. From the beginning, kids understood how to play with cubes and what cubes could do. But the team also realized rather quickly the pieces could also be used as weapons and had to be safe. The foam noodles were fine, but the metal rakes and brooms were changed to plastic.

The park, as clever as it is, still faces some challenges.

The blocks, which are recyclable and bio-degradable, still haven't proven their durability. Theft might also be a problem—though that one's meant to solved by "play associates," whose main job is to keep the park neat while encouraging play. Still, parents and nannies might mistake play associates as free babysitters (they're not and the same child abandonment laws will apply as they do at any park).

Rockwell is working with non-profit children's play organization KaBoom! to explore how to roll out the concept in other places. For about $5000, you can even have your own portable mini-playground shipped right to your door. The proceeds go back towards funding the partnership. Rockwell would like to imagine the playground as a catalyst for others around the country. There have tested the concept in other cities like Chicago and Aspen. But even he admits it's taken five years for his first grand opening.

[Check out a pic of the finished park here.]

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