I took my son to the Imagination Playground yesterday, at Burling Slip. All the press, and most of the photos, have emphasized architect David Rockwell’s movable blue foam blocks, designed to put the free play back in playground, along with the fact that the park would be staffed by “facilitators” to enhance its educational function. Somehow I imagined it as a stage for building, the children suddenly dwarfed by these new toys. How could that not engage differently than our round of neighborhood parks?
What I found was rather different. The blue blocks were over in a corner, unattended, but being out to good use as a raceway by three 7-year-old boys. They aren’t that big, two feet at the most. They don’t dominate the space. It was a hot day, so most of the kids were in the water area, a wading pool with spraying fountains at the east end of the oval. A few of the blue blocks had been brought into the water as dams and bridges, but mostly it looked like ordinary fun, less dangerous and less complicated than that at the new Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6. In all these new parks, I feel like I am searching for atmosphere, a designed quality above and beyond the ordinary spaces for children, and I am not finding it. At least they have put up a few umbrellas for shade here, and there is a breeze off the river. Otherwise the block play might feel like torture.
At the west end was a vast sandbox, with a running stream and a set of slings that could be used for sand flinging or swinging. The openness of the sand area, relative to its size, was great, turning it into more of a landscape than most of the contained boxes. I wondered about the fuzzy edges, though. How much sand is lost every day? And how many trip over the sand-colored foam edges of the area, where it is hard to see the difference between one surface and the next? Why only one slide, one change in level? My son had asked if there would be a climbing structure, and the answer was basically, no. Because it felt more ordinary, he had every right to expect the usual palette of things to do.
What my son gravitated toward was a shady area at the far east end, under the playground’s curving ramp. There a set of seafaring rope ladders have been installed safely over sand, and then accessorized with a series of knit and woven cloths, tied on to the deck and the ladders like hammocks. This was something new. But I wonder if it was intentional? The pieces of cloth were frayed and dirty and various (one was printed with palm trees), nothing like the precise polish of the showcased blue blocks. The attendants, all young women, congregated over at this end, tying the cloths on and spinning children. My son loved it, clambering (with help) from one to the other, chilling out and sucking his thumb, sticking his head in one and yelling at another kid. It was an entirely new landscape.
I wonder how long it will last. Are the cloths legal? Many seemed to be swinging awfully close to the steel ramp supports. One of the swinging attendants knocked my son flat in the sand, since she wasn’t watching her back. Only one seemed to have an idea about how best to tie them in knots. While the cloths seemed partly to make up for the lack of block drama, and were truly a new, soft, movable play element, they lacked some of the other qualities Imagination is supposed to possess. Most importantly, the kids couldn’t do it on their own.