Imagination Playground Comes to TNCS

“Play is the work of the child,” said Maria Montessori a century ago, and with that simple yet compelling concept, launched a revolution in early childhood education. The Montessori method is often mistakenly faulted for not making room for “imaginative play,” but the converse is actually true, and it’s also why the method is so downright effective. By integrating “work” (i.e., learning) with materials and lessons that children are naturally drawn to, the Montessori method allows kids to do what they do best—play, explore, touch, smell, absorb—but in a constructive, productive way. In other words, they are learning because they want to without even realize it’s happening. It’s sheer genius.

Fast-forward to this century, and an offshoot of this concept has begun to take root: play facilitated by “playworkers.” Playworkers describe (they resist defining it—you’ll see why) play as “a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” Activities such as building a sand castle and playing make-believe fit this description, whereas playing Angry Birds on an iPad is something else entirely (no judgment implicit here, parents!). It’s no accident that the playwork model of play sounds a lot like what Dr. Montessori had in mind. Playworkers’ (also called “play associates”) roles are to be the caretakers of the play environment. Unlike the bored, inattentive playground monitor of yore, these are trained adults who oversee an open setting in which children can direct their own play, maintaining a safe, welcoming environment for them.

Trained to what, exactly? Enter Imagination Playground, The New Century School’s latest schoolwide initiative to ensure a happy, adjusted, engaged student body. Launching soon, a focus on constructive play is what makes Imagination Playground a natural fit for TNCS. Says school cofounder Jennifer Lawner, “We will begin using it in the gym space during school hours and also make it available to The Lingo Leap for birthday parties and other activities.”

So What is Imagination Playground, Exactly?

Imagination Playground blocks close-up

A close-up of the foam blocks . . . makes you want to reach out, grab one, and start playing!

The flagship Imagination Playground opened in New York City in 2010; since then, more than 700 Imagination Playground sets have been implemented internationally . . . including right here in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, very soon. To backtrack a bit, Imagination Playground is a “play system that encourages unstructured, child-directed ‘free play.’” It looks like giant Tinker Toys—only soft, on an extremely large scale, and powder blue! Developed by the architectural firm The Rockwell Group, this play system “in a box” (or cart, as the case may be) can be used anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and comprises three key elements:

1. Manipulable Environment: Traditional playgrounds consist of fixed equipment. The experience kids get from swinging or sliding is somehow passive, even though they are actively moving. There is still the element of deriving enjoyment passively rather than having created/designed the experience. Not so here, where kids manipulate the play environment according to their own lights, then do with it what they will.

2. Loose Parts: An assortment of age-appropriate “found parts” can be integrated with the signature blue building blocks to expand on and extend play in new directions.

3. Play Associates: Workers are trained with a specific curriculum developed by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “saving play” as well as addressing America’s “play deficit” to properly implement and oversee an Imagination Playground.

According to Imagination Playground website’s FAQs, “This unique combination of elements enables children to create a great new playground each time they visit.” Click here for a video demonstration/profile.

More About the Blocks, Please

These are really the core of the Imagination Playground. The biodegradable foam blocks are nontoxic, cleanable, recyclable, resistant to microorganisms, and nonflammable. They are all blue—no variations are possible. This is to both encourage the use of, that’s right, imagination, rather than getting distracted by colors (or worse, fighting over them) as well as because that color was best received among kid focus groups. The blocks kit includes shapes like “l’il cheeses,” “clover gears,” and “arched chutes.” Are you getting excited yet? This basic kit can enhanced with angles and curves add-on sets to build endless combinations of kid-engineered “playgrounds.” They also promote collaboration among children to build their place space together.

And the Play Associates?

Must be the world’s best job, right? Probably pretty close, though training is a nonnegotiable prerequisite. This job is really more about managing the environment than playing with kids, however. Performing safety checks, setting up and putting away the loose parts, and cleaning the materials are their primary responsibilities, all to enable kids to let their imaginations take them where they will. “Play Associates set up and step back.”

As stated above, Play Associates are a kind of “playworker,” a profession written extensively about by Penny Wilson in the U.K., herself a professional playworker. Together with a nonprofit organization right here in our own backyard, Ms. Wilson and the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, MD aim to “[establish] playwork as a profession in the U.S. . . . [in] its efforts to restore play to children’s lives.” Read their Playwork Primer 2010 here.

Play: Not Something to Mess Around With

In the end, there’s a very serious side to play—not in a bad way, but in terms of the no-nonsense list of benefits that this kind of play yields. Playing with loose and found parts, researchers agree, hones cognitive, creative, and social development. In fact, it is precisely through play that kids develop. By playing, they are actually transforming their dreams into reality as noted pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst David Winnicott believed and for whom the concept of play was a central motif. Tied to influential architect Simon Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts:

“in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”

and the fundamental logic of Imagination Playground emerges. Did you watch the video yet? Those parent and education professional testimonials were full of words like “problem-solving,” “engaged,” “higher-level thinking,” “teamwork,” and even “character strengths like grit, resilience, and self-control.” (Remember education researcher/author Paul Tough? One of the NYC school principles he wrote about, Dominic Randolph, is an Imagination Playground advocate and user.) All of these blog themes are really starting to, uh, “connect”!

For a final word on the child’s sheer driving need to play, here is an excerpt from an interview with playworker Penny Wilson in the American Journal of Play:

“It is a common mistake that adults make to think that play is frivolous and fun, a pretty frill of childhood. But play not only develops physical and mental strength and agility, it is the mechanism by which children work out their thoughts and emotions. As adults we struggle to explain and understand ourselves and the things that happen around us. We wrestle with words. For example, I find it very difficult to capture the words I need to explain this thought to you now. Children have exactly the same need to grapple with their thoughts. But they use their playing as their language.”

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts or share an anecdote in the Comments section!

18 thoughts on “Imagination Playground Comes to TNCS

  1. Pictures of TNCS students enjoying the Imagination Playground should be forthcoming soon!

  2. Wow, that looks like fun! So lucky to part of a school that is so forward thinking. FYI, you may want to air out the foam blocks outside for a day. I suspect they are made of EVA, which offgasses some nasty stuff. EVA is banned in Japan and Europe for that reason.

  3. We’ll find out! Thanks Lily, for the head’s up!

  4. Great news parents!

    Barb Wing, Imagination Playground Sales Director & Play Associate says,

    “Our blocks are made from a cross-linked, polyethylene closed cell foam (which is different from ethylene-vinyl acetate). We have passed all material safety and data handling, which has allowed us to ship our blocks to 25 different countries (including Japan—we’re proud to say that Universal Studios in Japan has had our blocks for a couple of years and just ordered additional sets).

    So not to worry…play away!”

    Thanks to everyone for discussing this important health and safety issue.

  5. My kid is the one playing Angry Birds on the iPad, and that pains me in a way I can’t even really describe—but it’s something to do with my fear of him missing that special childhood window of bliss in the moment, every moment. I am somewhat consoled by the fact that he is a very imaginative child (iPad notwithstanding) and can and does play with anything. Yesterday, he had sticks and rocks talking to each other and made a hedgehog out of a clump of pine needles. Mind you, the sticks and rocks were standing in for “Ice Bird” and “King Piggy,” but still ;). (Not quite sure how the hedgehog fit in.)

  6. LOVE LOVE LOVE TNCS and what a supportive and nurturing place it is. Love that the values of the school line up with ours, especially with social and environmental responsibility! And thanks for actually following up on the materials. It’s going to be an amazing addition for the kids!

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