Feature Article - November 2011
Find a printable version here

Finding the Way to Fun

Big Ideas to Help Create Your Superior Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Imagination Playgrounds            

Imagination Playgrounds were created by New York City dad (and architect) David Rockwell after he noticed that his own children, as well as other kids at the playground, seemed more focused on playing with pieces of things they found around the park than with the installed, constructed playground equipment itself. It's "the idea that a child is often more interested in the box a present comes in than the toy itself," said New York City Assistant Commissioner of Recreation Nancy Barthold.

Rockwell approached the parks commissioner around 2005 and offered to design, pro bono, a new sort of playground for the city that would feature water, sand and foam blocks. Rockwell partnered with the city for a years-long collaboration process, and in July 2010, the first Imagination Playground opened at Burling Slip. This playground gets "a lot of fan mail," said Barthold, and it has become a destination for locals and tourists alike.

While the Burling Slip playground was being developed, many were concerned about the safety and liability issues of this more unconventional, free-form sort of play. But, the Burling Slip playground meets all the safety standards any New York City playground must meet. "In one year of running the Imagination Playground, we have not had any serious injuries or safety concerns," Barthold said.

There are plans for a second Imagination Playground in Brooklyn, but its creators also realized that "it would be good to be able to share this playground with other neighborhoods," said Barthold. And so, the Imagination Playground Box was born. With a box, "you can bring the blocks to a playground that does not have a park house, and children can enjoy it without the elaborate design and expense that the site at Burling Slip went through," she explained.

New York City owns 11 boxes, as well as an additional set of blocks that they take to special events where children will be present. "Our 10 boxes are brought out to 10 playgrounds on Fourth of July weekend and they stay there until Labor Day," said Barthold. This year the city also purchased a box for a playground site that was going to be under construction during the summer. There was no equipment available, but there were blocks to play with on the synthetic turf ballfield. "It was a big hit," she reported.

The Chicago Park District has also recently purchased three boxes, plus one indoor and one outdoor set of blocks. They made their debut at this past summer's Taste of Chicago food festival as an activity for kids, said Zvezdana Kubat, assistant press secretary for the Chicago Park District. After the Taste, they settled in at four parks around the city, and the fifth set of blocks continues to travel. In future summers, the boxes will "likely move from park to park to allow a variety of neighborhoods an opportunity to experience the equipment," she said. Chicago includes an onsite facilitator with each box to encourage safe and appropriate play, and Kubat said the boxes are a great addition to any park, provided there is staff available for programming and supervision.

The box's cost is in the thousands of dollars range, "while renovating a playground costs several hundreds of thousands of dollars," noted New York City's Barthold. So, a box can be a budget-friendly option for enhancing an existing play space—or providing entertainment during playground construction or a public event. "Over the last 20 years we have vandal-proofed our playgrounds so much that it's nice to now venture out and allow children a new opportunity to use their imaginations," Barthold said.