Skip to main content

Child's play in New York City and the nation

Imagination Playground in a Box, High Line Park, May 2010
Playground design has been a hot topic this year.  It started with overheated metal domes at two Michael Van Valkenburgh designed playgrounds.  More recently, architect (and parent) David Rockwell's Imagination Playground (in partnership with the "saving play for America's children" nonprofit, KaBOOM!) has been the subject of a Leonard Lopate show and a New Yorker article.  Rockwell's playground consists of blue "giant foam blocks, mats, wagons, fabric and crates[that] overflow with creative potential for children to play, dream, build and explore endless possibilities" (pictured above).  In May of this year, High Line Park hosted an Imagination Playground.  Other sites around the city hosted the playground.  These mini "Imagination Playground in a Box" play days were enticements for the ultimate Imagination Playground opening at the Burlip Slip at South Street Seaport this summer.  

Child's play or movement is on the President's agenda, too.  Just this morning, NPR's Pam Fessler reported that President Obama "has pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015."  The other side of the hunger story, in America, is obesity.  First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! is one approach to resolving childhood obesity.  Let's Move! is "engaging every sector of society that impacts the health of children to provide schools, families and communities the simple tools they need to help kids be more active, eat better, and get healthy."  Being more active can be achieved via "active families", "active schools", and active communities.  Let's Move! argues for the role of access to playgrounds in increasing physical activity.
To increase physical activity, today’s children need safe routes to walk and ride to school, parks, playgrounds and community centers where they can play after school and be active in sports, dance or fitness programs that are exciting and challenging to keep them engaged.
Before Rockwell's "loose" blue playground, Michael Van Valkenburgh's sophisticated playgrounds at Union Square and Brooklyn Bridge parks, and even Richard Dattner's 1972 Adventure Playground in Central Park, there was "the first permanent municipally–built playground in the country", constructed in the Lower East Side's Seward Park in 1903.  But even before the advent of municipal playgrounds, another public space was used for play.  Streets.
...a wave of immigration more than doubled the population of New York City, from 720,000 in 1865 to 1.8 million in 1895. Overcrowded tenement districts on the Lower East Side and the neighborhood on the west side of mid–town Manhattan known as “Hell's Kitchen” teemed with children, many of whom worked long hours in factories. Around the turn of the century, child labor laws began to improve life for many youngsters, but the only place they could play outdoors was the street, alleyways, or vacant lots. In response to these deplorable conditions, leading reformers of the Progressive era in New York City lobbied for the creation of a new kind of small park for children— the playground.   (Source: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation -- Playgrounds in Parks)
Playing in streets could be informal (above) or sanctioned as in the Summer Play Streets established by the Police Athletic League in 1914.  The goal of these play streets, as described on the PAL website, is to provide "children safe, supervised and fun-filled places to play and learn. Play Streets offer prevention education, sports and games and cultural arts activities."

Mulberry Street, north towards Houston Street

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, a modern, informal play street existed on Mulberry Street between Prince and Houston Streets.  According to a commemorative plaque across from St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, the children who played on the street were Italian American and one of the games played was spaldeen, the "most exciting street game ever played by New Yorkers."

We frequently walk along Mulberry Street -- a library branch is located at Mulberry and Jersey Streets -- but have yet to see any youth playing spaldeen or any other games.  I think much of the youth play has moved indoors.  For example, St. Patrick's Old Cathedral sponsors indoor youth soccer and basketball at its Youth Center on Mulberry Street.  

So, where did you play as a young person?  Yard, park/playground, or street?  If you have children, where do you encourage them to play?