Reminiscing about childhood adventures sparks the exhilaration of letting both imagination and limbs run wild. Where did you play your heart out? Was it a man-made fort, pieced together by other neighborhood kids throughout the years? A park or empty lot where weekends and summers were squirreled away exploring shipwrecks and deserted castles? A baseball field with swings and a merry-go-round? The landscapes vary but the sentiment remains the same: it was fun, and the whole world assembled at your fingertips.
Consider where a child living in New York City can play in 2018. Finding suitable and secure spaces that still include freedom and creativity to wander is a widespread dilemma for many parents and child care specialists. That’s where play:groundNYC slides in, our .nyc Best of Boroughs winner for Manhattan. The organization has emerged at the forefront of the issue as a nonprofit advocating for children’s right to play freely in New York City.
Based in Manhattan, where child friendly areas are increasingly scarce, play:groundNYC delivers a novel approach to twenty-first-century concerns by providing playworker-run environments that ‘encourage risk-taking and experimentation through self-directed play.’
We spoke with play:groundNYC’s Executive Director, Rebecca Faulkner, to learn more about the organization’s inception and long-term game plan. She began with the overall concept the founders sought to address: “We want kids in NYC and Manhattan specifically, to have the space and the tools to play freely without adult intervention. In 2018 kids don’t have enough time away from, parents, educators and other adults who mediate their behavior, and as a result, we are witnessing a play deficit, particularly in urban areas.”
The Launch of play:groundNYC
The story began three years ago when play:groundNYC opened their first adventure playground thanks the Trust of Governors Island, who provided them with 50,000 square feet of space which play:groundNYC leases annually. Affectionately named “The Yard”, this playground is a junkyard wonderland far unlike traditional environments in that children have access to loose parts and unconventional play materials they can build with, destroy, and enhance.
“Allowing the children to use tools provides them with a sense of ownership over how their playground is built and how it works,” Rebecca explained. “We have kids as young as six playing here and they have an amazing time. Fewer injuries happen on playgrounds like ours than they do in fixed, rooted playgrounds, and there is research to support this -and that makes for incredible fun as well as learning.”
The independent and unsystematic nature of The Yard is how the magic happens. Parents and other guardians sometimes require a little time adapting to the idea of their child engaging with saws, hammers, and nails, but that’s exactly what free-play embodies. Allowing for a bit of unpredictability and prompting children to perform their own personal risk assessments activates higher levels of occupational and cognitive abilities, which then translate positively in relationships and academics.
While The Yard is unstructured, children are not completely unaccompanied. The unruliness is closely observed by trained Playworkers, who are uniquely trained to support the kids at play. The role of the Playworkers is to provide the kids with the space and tools to play freely, and intervene upon specific request or when the circumstances truly require external assistance. Parents and caretakers are highly encouraged to sit back and relax while the little ones investigate possibilities and interact with one another.
Obstacles and Projection
As they are a New York City based organization, the most prevalent obstacle play:groundNYC faces is access to space. play:groundNYC has the raw materials and tools that constitute the play space, enthusiastic and skilled playworkers, and capacity, yet few areas in which to house them. Rebecca addressed the issue, noting that the organization continually searches for unique and creative uses for empty spaces in an effort to remedy the apparent lack of room.
“We work with communities to identify spaces to animate in the city. This could be parks, street festivals or vacant lots, for example. This winter we hope to be delivering a series of pop-ups in vacant storefronts in Greenwich Village. In working with community groups to organize pop-up play days kids get to play indoors in the winter months and there is public benefit to the block!”
The search for space is twofold: finding areas to host pop-up playgrounds and eventually implementing permanent playgrounds that mirror The Yard. Changing hearts and minds to become more accepting of this model of play, from parents to funders, is an additional aspect of capitalizing on procurable spaces once they are pinpointed.
The support for play:groundNYC has progressed from local admiration to global acknowledgement. In just three short years, play:groundNYC has garnered international attention due to a viral video and resonating message.
Thousands of inquiries poured in on how other cities and communities can replicate the play:groundNYC-inspired model. Rebecca was thrilled with the outreach and immediately extended encouragement to other communities interested in launching their own interactive adventure spaces. “Adventure playgrounds have a long, rich history - there have been playgrounds like this in Europe and in the U.S. for 60 years, although many of them have disappeared. Part of our mission is to support communities bringing them back. We want people to know that this is something you can build yourself-and the kids will thank you for it!”
Choosing the .nyc domain was a no-brainer. Rebecca views it as an embellishment on the premise of play:groundNYC and essential in emphasizing their New York roots. “As soon as we knew that was an option for us, we said yes! The website is not just a visual aid, but a wealth of information for anyone seeking resources and pictures of The Yard, or curious to see photos and images. We have a reading library, as well as historical information available. It really grounds us not just in the present but as part of a movement.” The nonprofit’s illuminating take on what it means to learn and play authentically and organically in twenty-first century NYC is more than promising, and sure to endure as communities evolve.
New Yorkers can find play:groundNYC play spaces at The Yard on Governors Island during their May through October season, and at pop-ups as announced in local communities and schools across the city. Currently The Yard operates seasonally on weekends, and through a popular summer camp program but will be closed for the winter season; hence the push to develop indoor models similar to the Greenwich Village proposal. The “Pop-Up Play Days” are organized throughout the five boroughs-if you’re a New York City resident or plan on visiting in the near future, further information is available at play-ground.nyc.