The Art of Play

Marquesa Weigel, 2, at the Imagination Playground at the South Street Seaport. This image is taken from the April 14th NY Times article "Science and Secrets in New York City Playgrounds" found at

In William McDonough’s revealing article titled “A Boat for Thoreau,” the relationship of the earth to man is pondered across ten pages in dozens of different ways. I could go through each of his arguments and points, all of which are enlightening, but I find even more merit in the questions he poses. Encouraging a new ecologically focused age of “designing minds” He asks his readers things like:

“How do we find ourselves in kinship with nature?”

“What is the natural world, and how are humans meant to inhabit it?”

“How do we eliminate the concept of waste?”

“What is one of the best designs we know of for inspiration? How about a tree?”

After reading an article in the New York Times about the innovative playgrounds that have been cropping up in New York and across the country, two of McDonough’s questions stood out to me that may have gone unnoticed before:

1. “How do you love all children?”

2. “The New York City Regional Plan Association just published a report entitled A Region at Risk, which indicated that a generation ago the im­pervious surfaces of the New York metropolitan region-the roads, the buildings, the parking lots-made up 19 percent of the city’s surfaces. In 1996, they made up 30 percent. The projection for 2020? 45 percent impervious surfaces. Imagine this pattern continuing until the amount of impervious surfaces6 rises to 70 or 80 percent. Where are the song­birds? What is the temperature? Where do the children play?“(McDonough).

Both of these questions can be answered through playgrounds. Teeming with generations that will mold the future and inherit the present disheartening state of the world, the observation of these small pieces of paradise in the middle of chaos might be just as valuable in understanding the relationships and values of our world as the observations of any street corner or pressure filled office space. The places we design for our children might have the most impact of all.

Imagination playground (pictured above) sprung out of an afternoon David Rockwell spent watching his children play with a packing box and foam. He realized (as my own parents did over several Christmases) that children enjoy the package more than the gift–joy filled with the power of putting simple objects together in unique ways. The Imagination playground (and the other several playgrounds featured in this article) fosters the development of designing minds. The Science Playground in Queens is built to allow children to experience the laws of physics–fully equipped with spinning disks and climbing webs that mirror molecular structure. As is subconsciously true in almost every situation a child encounters, the kids on these playgrounds learn without being “taught.” Pieces are put together and games invented that no architect could ever foresee. The use of these spaces is always malleable–constantly changing as the miraculously open minds of children enter and leave.

What would happen if these playgrounds built the connection to nature that McDonough seems to believe we have lost? What if they spurred the next generation to use their uniquely compartmentalized minds to think of new solutions for a world in peril just by exposing them to “inspiring” surroundings? One of the parks examined in “Science and Secrets in New York City Playgrounds” by Laurel Graeber appears to fit this idea. Built as a reflection of the 1911 children’s classic “The Secret Garden,” the flower filled maze of fields and real medieval stone castle that is the Connie Gretz Secret Garden in Staten Island is a different sort of playground. This is a space that reclaims the more traditional definition of play–the play of the English pint-sized heroine Mary Lennox as she buttoned up her wool coat, tied her braids tight with strips of ribbon, and spent an entire day exploring the unknown and claiming it for herself. It’s the kind of play I experienced as I galloped through the woods of Door County WI, pretending to be a chestnut filly as I laid down in the mossy grass and dreamed up a kingdom of hobbit-like houses built into the hillside.

We could learn a lot from the daydreams of children that occur in places like these. How they interact and learn in these artfully designed playgrounds could lead to the next great sustainable solution. Maybe we could even develop a greater sense of environmental awareness and care through innovative playground design. City kids who escape the loud hot bubble of buildings that scrape the sky and endless concrete might think more about the loss of the countryside if they are given the chance to experience a place like the Secret Garden. Bright eyed children who proudly display their age on extended fingers caked with sand might one day take the principles of sharing and creativity learned on the playground and use them to make the world a better place for their own kids.

So often we think that grand motions like recycling, hybrid cars, government subsidies, and the “green revolution” are the answers to curing the degrading state of the world. Maybe they are, but maybe playgrounds could be an answer too.

The Connie Gretz Secret Garden, Staten Island, NY

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