Manhattan Youth lets kids play their way


BY Michael Mandelkern

This past Monday, on a frigid afternoon, Manhattan Youth debuted its indoor Imagination Playground, a trial program with potential to expand this year.

Parents and babysitters brought curious toddlers and kids, ages two through five, to the lower level of the Downtown Community Center. The children instantly latched onto bright blue foam blocks, creating structures and forms on their own.

“I want to build it high,” said one child as he connected two blocks with a long, bendable cylinder.

“Wheels,” said another kid as he grasped a circular piece.

The room was full of giggles as more children entered the space. Manhattan Youth employees kept a watchful eye and parents looked on, but the kids were the ones in charge.

“It’s not, ‘Oh no, [a block] should go there,” said Alex Roche, director of the Downtown Community Center. “Kids use the space for their own imagination,” said Roche. “They make what they want to.”

One child tried to put together two pieces that at first seemed not to fit.

“Uh oh,” he said.

He eventually connected the pieces and built a structure without any help from the adults.

Children worked together to build complex arrangements, some crawling to find pieces while others dashed across the room to drape their creations with blankets and scarves. Others worked more independently.

“Up, down,” said one kid as he lifted what would appear to an adult to be a dumbbell, but to a child could be anything.

The first Imagination Playground at Burling Slip in the Seaport that opened over the summer inspired Roche to bring the model to Manhattan Youth. He found the moveable objects, without anything fastened to the floor, to be a “great concept.”

Roche recently ordered the equipment from Imagination Playground, a non-profit and architecture firm partnership founded by architect David Rockwell, who designed the Burling Slip model. The organization’s goal is to “constantly reconfigure their environment and to design [children’s] own course of play,” according to the organization’s website.

The materials are sold in a box set on wheels and include various shapes, such as foam noodles and floor mats, some with holes in them that can be connected together.

The new Manhattan Youth program just got underway, and fittingly, as the winter weather makes playing in the park and outdoors unpleasant and harsh. But Roche plans to expand the hours beyond the current 12:15 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. Monday-through-Friday timeframe.

“This is the first day. We just opened the door and there are already people walking in,” said Roche as he introduced the new program on January 24. He said parents have expressed interest in the Imagination Playground, and that he anticipates a continued strong turnout.

“We’re always trying to foster creativity, even at a young age,” said Roche.

Many of Manhattan Youth’s activities, such as the Friday night program geared towards children ages nine through 14, appeal to youths ages five and over, but Roche senses a “growing need” for programs aimed at younger children.

The new class is currently geared towards pre-kindergarten children, because some of them are not yet in school and many pre-school programs end by the late morning. But Roche plans on opening the facility to older children later in the year and bringing the equipment outside once the temperature rises to an appropriate level.

The Imagination Playground is open exclusively to Manhattan Youth members, but nonmembers can purchase a day guest pass for $25 that gives them access there and to other Downtown Community Center programs.

For more information on the Imagination Playground log on to www.imaginationplayground.org or call Manhattan Youth for specific program queries at 212.766.1104.