For any Philly parent or child who’s visited the Please Touch Museum, the Imagination Playground is a familiar destination. A carpeted space adjacent to the carousel where children use oversized blue foam blocks and “noodles” to build whatever their brains dream up—life-sized igloos, basketball hoops, robots—it invites the kind of play that harkens back to a time before screens monopolized childhood.
But for children in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, where—13-plus years post-Katrina—swaths of homes remain decimated and 46 percent of people live in poverty, those building blocks represent more than play: They signify an opportunity to transcend race, class and history.
Angela Kyle, founder of the New Orleans nonprofit PlayBuild, was taken aback the first time she witnessed the transformative power of the materials. She was prototyping an early version of the PlayBuild concept and had the the Imagination Playground blocks set up at a farmers market for children to use, when she noticed a young African American boy, about 9 or 10, looking at her. She asked him if he wanted to play, and showed him pictures on her phone of another kids’ creations. “He looked at me with skepticism,” Kyle recalls. “‘Did a white kid do that?’ he asked.
The boy’s cynicism—the fact that his knee-jerk reaction was to assume something special couldn’t possibly be for him—could have broken Kyle’s heart. Instead, it strengthened her commitment to PlayBuild, which since 2012 has sought to transform blighted urban spaces in New Orleans into sources of design-focused play and community gathering.
“When this kid saw something that he perceived to be good and automatically associated it with something that he couldn’t do or achieve—that was the moment that solidified the importance of our mission,” says Kyle, who’d previously worked for New Orleans’ Business Alliance. “We have to give these kids confidence that their ideas and the way that they bring those ideas to life, and the way they express those ideas, is valid and that they deserve to be listened to.”
The mission of PlayBuild is to transform under-utilized urban spaces “to engage young people and empower them through design-related play: architecture, city-planning, sustainability.” The goal isn’t to turn out a generation of architects and engineers, Kyle says. It’s to restore a sense of pride and stewardship in the city’s young people—and the community around them—“to put them directly in touch with the transformation of the built environment so that they see the opportunity to be agents of that transformation and not just passive observers as whole blocks morph”—read: gentrify—“into something different.”
Unlike organizations focused on building traditional playgrounds, PlayBuild’s focus is on cultivating an awareness among children of the designed world around them—what makes it unique, the problems and potential that come with it. The materials available to the kids who come to PlayBuild reflect that: There are the Imagination Playground blocks, as well as tools like Magna-Tiles, Rigamajig (jumbo erector) sets, LEGO, and art supplies galore. . .