Rockwell himself is well-aware of this. At the adventure playgrounds of decades past, he says, “they did things much more dangerous than you could get away with today in a litigious society—working with hammers and nails and actually building things.” (These types of playgrounds do still exist in the United States, but barely.) So instead of physical risk, Rockwell talks about creative risk. At the Imagination Playground, you can dare to build whatever you want—knowing that tomorrow it will be gone. “Part of the impact of the playground is that it is impermanent,” he says.
The rise of the loose parts playground extends well beyond lower Manhattan. In various versions, there are more than 1,000 sets of Rockwell’s blocks out there, and thanks in part to a partnership with KaBOOM!, a lot of those blocks are far from the tax brackets of the South Street Seaport. When I talked to KaBOOM!’s Hammond, he’d just come back from Miami, where the bright-blue blocks are in a low-income child care center.
Of course, loose parts don’t have to be designed by David Rockwell—they can be junk from your basement. Detroit’s Arts & Scraps is a loose parts-focused organization where the loose parts are, well, scraps. Early childhood educators, for their part, adore loose parts for the open-ended, spontaneous sort of play they encourage, which is very much in line with the new orthodoxy of how young children learn. “When you have loose parts, you don’t have the same repetitive pattern of play,” Hammond says. “It’s much a more circuitous path.” And that’s what you want from play. “You want to see kids escape into this zone in which they lose themselves.” In other words, loose parts are perfectly suited to assuage the paradoxical parental anxieties of the moment: We want our children to have time to play but we also want that play to be productive—to be more than play.
Of course, loose parts playgrounds are messier than plasticized fort structures. At the Imagination Playground, there are “play associates” present, partly to tell the parents to sit down, partly to “facilitate play,” in their words, but also to put out the props and then put them away again. (Playworkers are much more common in England; they’re almost unknown here.) Loose parts require more oversight than a slide. They can walk away.
In New York, however, they haven’t. Until recently, the city spent a lot of time trying to vandal-proof playgrounds, says Nancy Barthold, assistant commissioner for recreation and programming for New York City’s Parks Department. Now the city distributes loose parts around the boroughs in the summer: some sets of Rockwell’s blocks, some hoses, some buckets and cloth, even makeshift sandboxes. Those loose parts stayed loose; they didn’t walk away. “We thought that things were going to get destroyed and stolen and they’re not,” Barthold says. “It’s nice to be able to go back to being able to offer children things that move around and to do it without too much worry.”
And in the end, the blocks might not even be the most important loose parts. “Kids are drawn to sand and water,” Barthold says. “Beyond the blocks, the basics are simply sand and water.”
Stanley Hall’s sand pile, it turns out, isn’t a portrait of the past. It’s a vision of the future.