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Rethinking the playground

Today’s New York Times featured a cover story about a new playground concept that will be tested in Lower Manhattan. The design was developed by David Rockwell who has made a name for himself creating more sophisticated “play” spaces, like the Mohegan Sun casino. This next-generation concept won’t feature traditional playground mainstays, like swings, slides and climbing structures. Instead, there will be sand, water, found objects, pulley systems and wagons. Oh yes, and Play Workers. There will actually be paid staff on hand to supervise and facilitate play and maintain the equipment.

Mr. Rockwell is himself backing the payroll initially with more than $2 million out of his own pocket, which is raising some understandable questions about the sustainability of the project. For the time being though, he has a vested interest – he lives in Lower Manhattan and has two children, ages 4 and 7. It was through observing their play that he was inspired to develop a playground that would spark the imagination and invite collaboration.

For gross motor skills, it seems like the only option is a climbing net. And maybe this is enough for older kids, but I’ve seen firsthand how much practice my kids got with balance, coordination and upper body strength while on the playground. Not to mention courage. And in the midst of all the traditional equipment, I’ve witnessed fantastic imaginative play, from pirates to princesses, all blossoming without any adult intervention. I’m a huge fan of good design and the general advancement of innovative concepts, but from my own experience, kids can bring imagination into any activity. On the other hand, finding a good, safe place to climb, jump, swing and slide is a lot harder.

In any case, it will be very interesting to follow this project. They have some serious brainpower and creativity powering the engine, and I’m most curious to see what kind of training they’ll devise for the onsite Play Workers. It’s not exactly an easy job (crowds of rowdy kids, tantrums, fluctuating weather, cranky parents…), so who will do it and how will they be equipped to do it well? If all goes according to plan, the playground should be completed by some time next year.

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