Imagination Playground: Cool but Glitchy

A review on Imagination Playground and South Street Seaport.
Modeled on European “adventure playgrounds!” Designed by renowned architect David Rockwell! $7.5 million in the making! The pre-sell hype for the Imagination Playground really built up my expectations. So, you can imagine my disappointment when my family arrived on the area’s fourth day of operation to discover that the main water feature was broken and a PVC chime was missing from the sound set-up. Suddenly, the “breakthrough playspace concept” seemed more like a broken one.
I do love the idea behind the playground—a place for exercising imagination as much as motor skills by offering an array of loose items that allow kids to create their own environment and providing play associates to enable their imaginings (read: keep parents from hovering). However, over the course of our two hours there, it was the good old-fashioned sand—a free-play installment that exists in many other city playgrounds—that was the most crowded. And the one play associate actively participating in the play was doing things any parent might do—helping put a roof on a fort. To my mind, Imagination Playground is not as out-of-the-(sand) box as it thinks it is.
Water feature
That’s not to knock the whole place. There are some great features, and it isn’t entirely fair of me to review it when the water sprinklers weren’t working—but let’s face it, even that’s a traditional playground feature. Some of the much-touted elements were available the day we were there. The blue blocks were out in abundance, and kids of about 5+ were crafting some fun forts and flow tables using them. My two-and-a-half year old wasn’t in a building mood that day, but was interested in the other “loose elements,” like a garden-style hand shovel, broom, and wheelbarrow. Unfortunately, the latter two items aren’t really scaled to toddlers. The broom was as tall as my 3-foot son and the wheelbarrow was as heavy as he is. Not that either quality stopped him from having fun with them at the near expense of my eye and feet!

Blue blocks
The Design—Rockwell’s peanut-shaped, vast space does give the Imagination Playground the feel of an oasis amid the towers and elevated highway in the South Street Seaport area. He’s referenced the maritime history of the location with a boat shaped water play area, three masts rising up from the sandbox, and the bright red crow’s nest—think cruise ship smoke stack—at the center of the playground. He’s even included rope nets designed for capturing kid’s minds, rather than tuna. A reclaimed teak-wood platform reminiscent of a ship’s deck provides seating for grownups on one side and a place for kids to run around on the other. Beach-style umbrellas provided shaded areas around the play zones, but I can imagine on a hot day that it might get tough to find a space under one.

Blue blocks
The “Loose Parts ” — In particular the blue blocks, which come in a wide-variety of shapes to encourage more visionary and stable structure building. Cylinder blocks can be inserted into rectilinear ones to create fort joints that can withstand attack by 3 year-olds. Swimming noodle-like tubes can be used as antennas or even flower stems when topped by the wing nut-shaped blocks. Other blocks feature half-pipe cut outs ideal for creating channels ferrying water, sand, or balls. Other gear included sheets for tent and hammock making, garden-style shovels for digging, brooms for pushing sand hopefully back towards the sand area, and the (heavy!) wheelbarrows for kids to move blocks, or in many cases, parents to give kids a ride. I did spot some yellow tiles inside the crow’s nest office, but they weren’t out for use the day we were there.
Classic playground entertainment
The Sand—Large and free-form, the sand area was the most popular spot in the playground for kids of all ages. Working with some water features on the south side and shovels provided by the playground, kids were busily building away. On the three ships masts sprouting up from the center of the sand area, parents and kids were trying to figure out the rope and pulley system that acts as the controls for moving a rope swing between them. Unfortunately, from what I could see, it takes the strength of a grown-up to get the system moving. Rope nets on the western side of the sand were fun for climbing and using to create forts with the playground sheets. Toddlers like my son were most interested in the yellow tube slide that poured them out from the deck to the sand in fast order.

There’s one with a changing table inside the playground’s red crow’s nest.

South Street Seaport has an abundance of eating choices ranging from pretzel carts to Mexican-Irish cuisine. Check out their website for details:
How to get there: The playground is located on Burling Slip at the South Street Seaport, roughly at Front and John Streets. You can take the 2, 3 to Fulton Street or the A, C to Broadway Nassau and walk several blocks east down Fulton to Front St. Turn right and you should see the playground on your right on John Street.
Hours of operation: 9:30 am-6:30 pm daily all summer; 2:30 pm-7:00 pm during the school year.
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