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.

(Courtesy of National Building Museum/COURTESY OF NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM)

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.

(Courtesy of National Building Museum/COURTESY OF NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM)

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.

Related content:

Parents are the biggest obstacle to letting kids play, says study in Pediatrics

Study of preschoolers finds need for more outdoor play

‘Girl’ LEGOs: Should gender-neutral toys get gender-specific?

From the Going Out Guide:

National Building Museum: hours, directions, event listings

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