Opinion: 'Imagination Playground' Lives Up to Its Name

Filed under: Toddlers Preschoolers, Preschoolers, Big Kids, Tweens, Activities: Babies, Places To Go, In The News, Playground Bureau

"Imagination Playground" at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan officially opened to the public this summer, with a press conference featuring New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- and a $7.5 million price tag.

The South Street Seaport has a long history as the city's maritime commerce center, dating back to the early 1800s. In 1983, through a city redevelopment initiative, the Seaport was opened to the public with dozens of shops and restaurants. Since then, it has grown into a major tourist area with a schedule of events and amenities that attract scores of visitors and locals to the area.

Imagination Playground was clearly built to honor and celebrate the area's rich maritime tradition, using design elements such as ship's masts and a crow's nest, and featuring water and sand as the two core play elements. It spans an entire city block, replacing a parking lot that had been used by one of the city agencies, which helped develop the project.

I heard of the plans for the playground about four years ago, when the concept was first announced by the city. Architect David Rockwell is well-respected and pretty well known in these parts, so the fact that he was turning his talents to design a playground for kids was certainly newsworthy.

Yet, when I read about the playground's opening and its hefty price tag, I have to admit I was outraged, as my thoughts turned to the battle of the budget fought this year by New York parents to ensure their kids still receive free transit cards for travel to and from school.

And then I heard about the "play associates" hired by the city to ... to what, exactly? Teach kids how to play? That just seemed like an outrageous overindulgence.

But then I visited the playground, and was given a tour by Barry Richards, one of the designers from Rockwell Group who has been working on the project for the last few years through completion. And, just 60 minutes later, I was totally captivated by the scores of adorable, happy, fully-engaged kids having an absolute blast in the hot summer sun.

During my tour, Richards explained that the construction of the playground actually cost $4.5 million; however, an additional $3 million was spent by the city for the relocation of two water mains and a sewer line, according to a Rockwell Group press release.

Richards also revealed that acclaimed architect David Rockwell, founder and CEO of Rockwell Group, did all of the design work pro bono. Further, Rockwell Group is raising, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, an endowment fund to ensure that the playground is properly maintained for decades to come, according to the release.

I also learned that many New York City playgrounds provide play associates, though the four who work at the Imagination Playground were trained specifically to work there, Richards says. Their purpose is to facilitate the concept of unstructured play that is the mission of this innovative playground, and to help ensure that kids play safely and cooperatively.

The Imagination Playground concept was conceived and designed by Rockwell to encourage "child-directed, unstructured creative free play that is critical to a child's intellectual, social, physical and emotional development," according to the Parks & Recreation website. Richards explained that the concept was inspired by the Adventure Playgrounds that cropped up in Europe after World War II.

The concept has been so well received that Rockwell has developed portable "Imagination Playground in a Box" kits and is partnering with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to saving play, to bring them to communities across the country. Ten of these kits already have been placed in playgrounds throughout New York City, and five more are "on-the-road" this summer traveling around to different area parks as part of an Imagination Playground Pop-Up Tour.

While traditional playgrounds typically feature fixed equipment such as slides and swings that work gross motor skills, the Imagination Playground is "an interactive, transformable space that prompts children to manipulate their environment and create a play space of their own with sand, water and loose parts," according to Parks & Recreation.

These loose parts include giant foam blocks, noodles, PVC pipes, wooden wagons, fabric, buckets and other pieces that allow for an endless configuration of structures, stories and collaborative play. In this way, kids can build and explore to their heart's desire, flexing their minds as well as their muscles.

I think the Imagination Playground is a fresh and innovative concept, which gives kids the freedom to be creative while encouraging active outdoor play. Oh, and it's really fun.

Take a look at the photos from our visit, and tell us what you think.

Related: The Benefits of Playground Exercise for Kids

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.