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Play Work Build

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Play Work Build photo
Courtesy of National Building Museum
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Editorial Review

'Play Work Build’ puts creativity on exhibit at the National Building Museum
By Christina Barron
Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012

If you’re a fan of building blocks, you probably have a set the makes a castle, a fighter plane or a hospital. There are step-by-step directions to get to the finished product. But what if the blocks came with no directions and no theme? What would you make?

If you’re curious, head to the National Building Museum. The museum’s “Play Work Build” exhibition is filled with hundreds of bright blue blocks made from a dense foam. There are little blocks to build on a table, and big blocks to stack several feet up from the floor. There are even virtual blocks. All you need to bring is your imagination, and you can build anything.

The blocks, which include arches, bends, hinges and a round shape called “little cheese,” have inspired kids to make a huge range of creations.

“I would like to build forts,” said Alex Rosenbaum, 10, who with his parents and brother Jacob was on his second visit to “Play Work Build.” Alex said he preferred the large blocks and would recommend the exhibition to any kid who likes to build.

“I could stay here for hours,” he said as he and Jacob, 7, began to construct a square fort that grew to four feet tall.

Their fort got the attention of younger builders nearby who were interested in helping.

The ideas of starting from scratch and working together is just what New York-based designer David Rockwell had in mind when he created the blue blocks.

Rockwell, who has two kids, came up with the idea of creating a playground in Lower Manhattan, the area of New York City damaged in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Most of the playgrounds in the city . . . didn’t encourage the taking apart and putting together,” Rockwell said.

So Rockwell and his design group dreamed up a set of blocks that come on a cart and could be used inside or outside. They tested it at a New York recreation center.

“What we discovered is [that] kids would play more with that set of blocks than with anything,” Rockwell said, “because every day they could build something new.”

The sets, called Imagination Playground, can be found at 600 playgrounds worldwide, including Washington’s Two Rivers Public Charter School and the Beauvoir School.

When the National Building Museum’s curators were looking for something kid-friendly to replace the popular “Lego Architecture” exhibition, they went to Rockwell. His company donated the playground-size blocks and created smaller ones especially for the museum. Rockwell also designed a huge screen that fills with falling virtual blocks. If you stand on a special mat in front of the screen, cameras capture your shape and it appears onscreen. Virtual blocks then magically fill that shape and continue stacking up to the ceiling.

Isabella Valles, 9, of Columbia said her favorite part of the virtual blocks wasn’t watching them rise in a stack. It was what happened when she moved around on the mat.

“It was fun to make them fall down.”

Imagination Play comes to National Building Museum
By Janice D'Arcy
Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

Since the National Building Museum said farewell to its Legos exhibit, many families in the region have been left wanting. The installation had been beloved virtually from its opening day two years ago, packing in 9,000 to 10,000 visitors a month and paving the way for the museum to begin charging admission.

Its replacement opened this past weekend. Turns out there is life after Legos.

Play Work Build is both an extension and an elaboration on one of the museum’s primary missions, to introduce children to the building process. The second-floor former Legos gallery is now overrun by thousands of pieces of blue foam, some sized for building models and some sized to build forts.

It’s a Rockwell Group-designed playspace that’s tactile, gender-neutral and has what a designer called a “subliminal subtext” while allowing for the creation of “visual narratives.” Such high concepts don’t come cheap (more on that below), but the real point is this: It’s fun.

My own 3- and 5-year-old ignored my presence for about an hour as they assembled foam amoebas (which stretched the definition of visual narrative).

The name Rockwell may ring a bell, even for those who do not follow design. It’s the architectural firm that a few years ago launched an attack on what modern playgrounds have become — namely, safe and boring.

Safety standards have penned them in, curbing physical challenges and imagination, critics say. Some have gone so far to suggest that typical playgrounds have been so dumbed down that kids turn instead to video games to get an adrenaline jolt.

As an alternative, the New York-based firm developed its Imagination Playground, which demands creativity. Alone, the pieces look like monochromatic — and frankly, pretty safe — foam. Add children, especially those between ages 3 and 12, and the shapes become something else entirely. “They make their own unique play environments,” Barry Richards, a principal at Rockwell, said.

The group worked with New York City to install its first playground at the South Street Seaport. Since then, versions have been embraced in schools and municipalities across the country.

There is a drawback in the expense. The larger individual pieces cost in the $100 range and a full set costs about $5000, making the experience inaccessible to much of the public.

In D.C., for instance, Building Museum staff said the play spaces have, until now, been available to only students in a small number of private schools.

Richards said the cost is justified because the foam is so durable and safe. And, he said, an Imagination Playground tends to be less expensive than a traditional playground.

At the National Building Museum, to romp in the foam will cost nonmember visitors the same as Legos did, $8 per adult and $5 for children. Like its predecessor, too, museum staff have high expectations for Play Work Build, as it is also scheduled to be open for about two years.