Rethinking Playgrounds

In this shoulder season, when the leaves are down and hiking trails no longer call, but before we have enough snow on the ground to play in or ice on the pond to skate on, my thoughts have turned to playgrounds.

We explored the neighborhood park and playground while we visited Grandpa over Thanksgiving. It was typical shoulder-season weather in western New York, a gray, changeable mix of sleet, snow, rain, and wind, but not so harsh that Grandpa, Virgil, and I couldn’t walk a block to the park to watch the black squirrels race between oak trees and see how high we could go on the swings. After a short while, though, Virgil tired of swinging. He ignored the other equipment on the playground — a plastic horse on a metal spring, a seesaw sized for toddlers, a slide — and declared himself ready to go back inside.

That got me thinking about a playground that opened in New York City this summer. Its unveiling received the kind of publicity normally reserved for theater openings: The New York Times and The New Yorker wrote lengthy articles; glossy design and architecture magazines covered it as well. This was no ordinary playground. The Imagination Playground at Burling Slip, built over five years for $7 million on a former parking lot where fish were once unloaded for the Fulton Fish Market, is being heralded as an exemplar of the newest thinking about children’s play.

The playground is the brainchild of architect David Rockwell, known for his inventive designs for casinos, airport terminals, and restaurants — until he became a father and noticed that the playgrounds he frequented with his children weren’t all that much fun. The Burling Slip playground contains no swing sets. Instead of the traditional equipment, known as the “4 ‘S’s” (swing, sandbox, seesaw, and slide), Imagination Playground has running water, a crow's nest tower, a 3,000-square foot sand pit — and one lone slide. Much of the playground’s $7 million price tag comes from its landscaping and water engineering. But one of the most important parts of the playground, both theoretically and on the ground, turns out to be its least expensive. In addition to tunnels and towers, hills and sand, the playground also contains hundreds of bright-blue foam pieces, some shaped like blocks, others with grooves or holes cut into them, others like swimming noodles — what Rockwell calls “loose parts.”

The ideas behind Imagination Playground come with a fascinating and instructive history. The term “loose parts” comes from a 1971 essay by another architect, Simon Nicholson, “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” In Nicholson’s formulation, the more variables — loose parts — children have to play with, the more inventive and creative their play becomes, and the more they discover together. Nicholson’s essay is four decades old, and draws from an even older concept of adventurous play that developed in the United Kingdom and Europe after World War II. Many an “adventure playground” was built out of the rubble of buildings that had been destroyed by bombs. The first movie in Michael Apted’s “7-Up” series shows young British children building elaborate contraptions out of scraps of lumber and metal in one such playground. One of England’s most prominent backers of the concept, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, promoted adventure playgrounds as places where children “come to terms with the responsibilities of freedom.”

Other groups were playing in this particular sandbox before David Rockwell and Imagination Playground. After 24-year-old Darell Hammond read a news article about two children who suffocated while playing in an abandoned car because they had no other place to play, he started the nonprofit that would become KaBoom!. The organization works collaboratively with communities to design their playgrounds, even including children in the design process, and keeps costs to a fraction of the Burling Slip’s by using volunteer labor. KaBoom's playgrounds mix traditional components with creative ideas generated by children and parents. Since 1995, KaBoom! has helped build more than 1,900 playgrounds around the country.

David Rockwell has teamed with KaBoom! to create Playground in a Box, which crams 75 blue-foam “loose parts” into a 5-foot by 5-foot container. Other play spaces around the country are using Imagination Playground’s loose parts, including other spots in New York City, Pittsburgh and Allentown, Pennsylvania, a KIPP school in Washington, D.C., and Stepping Stone Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut. Boston Children’s Museum is slated to receive the bright-blue blocks.

The new interest in creative, collaborative playgrounds appears to be driven by concerns that America’s overscheduled and sedentary children aren’t only losing out inside the classroom, compared to their peers in Europe, Asia, and Canada, but are also missing out on crucial development tasks outside of school. Research into play using brain imaging and animal observations leads people like Melvin Konner, an anthropologist at Emory University and the author of The Evolution of Childhood, to speculate that “natural selection designed play to shape brain development.” The research also suggests that the folks who built playgrounds out of bomb sites had the right idea: to fully work, play must involve some risk; its sharing and collaborations need to be negotiated with minimal adult intervention.

When I think back to our walk to the park, I remember that the black squirrels kept Virgil interested far longer than the playground. Some outdoor educators are taking the concept of collaborative, “loose parts” play and moving it into the natural world. I’ll explore those ideas in my next post.

Learn more
- Imagination Playground
- David Rockwell plans for Playground in a Box (The New York Times, September 25, 2010)
- KaBoom
- Watch “Playwork: An Introduction,” a video by KaBoom

Photos courtesy Imagination Playground.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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