David Rockwell

Daily Point of Light # 3822 Sep 26, 2008

In addition to running Rockwell Group, an award winning, cross-disciplinary 250-person architecture and design firm, David Rockwell has spent the last several years designing and creating Imagination Playground, a new concept in playgrounds, intended to allow children to create and manipulate their own play environment. The idea came to Mr. Rockwell after New York began their search for a design that would serve as a tribute to those who lost their lives on September 11th. Mr. Rockwell wanted to create a memorial playground that really engaged and excited children so he began watching how his own children interacted with things such as sand and water, as well as unconventional items, such as sticks, sheets, couch cushions and pieces of string.

Mr. Rockwell first began working on his ideas with New York City Department of Parks and Recreation collaborated to create a new play space at Burling Slip in lower Manhattan. A unique child-centric downtown oasis, the future “Imagination Playground” will combine sand, water, “loose parts” and play associates to encourage a constantly changing environment where children can play, dream and build. Activity will be mixed with creativity by providing diverse materials to promote unstructured “free play.” The site is set to open later next year.

Mr. Rockwell is also working with KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to bringing play back into the lives of children, on a smaller, more portable version of Imagination Playground called Imagination Playground in a BOX. The partners have just concluded a successful summer-long prototype test of the Imagination Playground in a BOX. Now, KaBOOM! and Rockwell are working on how to distribute the materials and knowledge needed to create Imagination Playgrounds to facilities across the nation next year.

Play is not a luxury. Play is a childhood necessity. There is a wealth of data on the power of play and the difference unstructured play can make on the health and well-being of a child. The numbers of children suffering from obesity, ADHD and depression are alarming. The belief that play is a luxury has deep roots in our nose-to-the grindstone, work-hard-now-and play-later lives. The very definition of play is to “have fun”—and we are taught from childhood that fun things aren’t necessary. Our cultural bias is exacerbated by these technological, societal and educational trends that further erode the incidence of play.

This “Play Deficit” can be seen every day, and is reflected in the results of several different studies. Kaiser Family Foundation found that “Youth between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day with electronic media – more than 45 hours a week.” In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv found that “the area outside of the home that parents feel comfortable letting their children play unsupervised has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s.

The problems that this Play Deficit creates are manifold; since play helps children become happier, healthier, more creative and socially adept. According to a Harris Interactive Poll, 89% of pediatricians believe play helps kids from becoming overweight. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll revealed that 90% of teachers and 86% of parents believed that physically active children are better able to learn and are better behaved in the classroom. A recent UNICEF report found that British and American youth are the unhappiest children in the developed world, most likely due to the decline over the last 15 years in outdoor, unstructured play. To deprive children of adequate time and space to play is detrimental to their well-being now and in the future.

The testing of the first prototype installation of Imagination Playground in a BOX that began on July 8th in Brownsville, NY concluded this past weekend, and the system is proving to help create the engaging, exciting environment that Mr. Rockwell had envisioned for children. Brownsville, NY was chosen to test the prototype because it is one of the lowest-income areas in the city, and both KaBOOM! and Rockwell wanted to make sure that any play system they created could be implemented where children needed them the most. Multiple studies have shown that children in low-income neighborhoods play much less than their affluent peers. To address this need in particular, KaBOOM! and Rockwell both wanted to create a play system that could be replicated in wide range of environments, especially those in which standard play equipment is impractical or unaffordable.

Imagination Playground in a BOX is proving to be a great play system for under-served communities. In Brownsville, children who regularly use the playground are engaged in meaningful play for longer periods of time and are coming back to the playground more often. The Playground Associates who supervise the kids and facilitate play report that the children, “never get tired of playing with these blocks. They won’t stop playing with them until someone makes them.” Play with the loose parts is often integrated with play on the fixed, installed play equipment, and evaluators have observed comparable levels of physical activity with loose and fixed play equipment. Kids are also playing more imaginatively and collaboratively.

To have an architect of Mr. Rockwell’s caliber turn his attention to the importance of play is extraordinary. Mr. Rockwell has used his design prowess and experience to re-think the very concept of what a playground should be, possibly revolutionizing the industry as only an outsider can. His ideas and devotion to the cause of play will impact the lives of millions of children over the next several years, making them happier, healthier, smarter and more socially adept now and in the future. There aren’t many folks who can claim such an achievement.