Imagination Playground – the Big Blue Blocks that can
By Wendy Grant
The versatile, customizable playroom products can quickly transform a space into a place for play, engrossing children in hours of creative engagement
The original Imagination Playground installation in 2010 was the result of a collaboration between Rockwell Group and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Award-winning architect David Rockwell was inspired by watching his own children play. His firm, Rockwell Group – known for stunning designs in hotels, restaurants, theatre projects, and more – studied playgrounds and identified a need for open-ended activities. Ultimately, they created a permanent space in Burling Slip, featuring sand and water elements and the first Imagination Playground of Big Blue Blocks – what became the company’s signature, customizable block sets. The Burling Slip installation was an immediate hit and was named a top 10 playground in the United States by Early Childhood Education Zone.
Jim Stallman acquired Imagination Playground in 2018 and continues to operate it from company headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island. Over the last decade the company has built a strong presence facilitating “loose part play” with its block sets – serving museums, educational institutions, and attractions, and expanding into themed entertainment markets.
Now well-established with representation around the world, Imagination Playground can turn any area into a fun and utterly absorbing space for kids. Its US-manufactured, customizable products offer a versatile, durable, affordable solution for venues in need of a temporary play space or a permanent, kid-focused attraction. Kids in 60+ countries use Imagination Playground products to create creatures, contraptions, and construction projects.
Imagination Playground’s block sets range in size from small, for tabletops, to medium, to large, for indoor or outdoor spaces. Made of a proprietary closed-cell foam that’s lightweight, waterproof, and durable, the blocks can be used indoors or outdoors, on the ground or in sand or water, including on splash pads. The blocks go beyond traditional shapes and are produced with curves, holes and angles.
A newer product is Loose-Part Bones, available in three sizes, which can be used to assemble creatures like dinosaurs. The concept for Loose-Part Bones grew out of a collaboration with the Boston Children’s Museum.
The Power of Loose-Part Play
The Imagination Playground assortment of block shapes was specifically developed to encourage loose-part play. Loose parts are materials that don’t have specific goals or functions, don’t necessarily join together for a pre-arranged result. Many toys and equipment for kids have specific functions — think of a dollhouse, race car, puzzle or swing. But when children play with loose parts, they use their own creativity and critical-thinking skills to determine how to interact with the items and what to build from them.
Stallman talked about how loose-part play stimulates a child’s development. “It helps kids learn to observe, inquire, investigate, and engage with others and with the world around them,” he says. “Our blocks offer a safe environment for kids to design, construct, and deconstruct to reach a common goal.” And, he says, the product is more relevant than ever. “When COVID hit, kids were in front of screens more than ever, and worse than that, they were isolated. Now we’re even more adamant than ever that kids need to be outdoors, moving and playing collaboratively. And that’s exactly what the blocks do.”
Its creative versatility also means the product can be readily adapted to specific markets and needs. Imagination Playground clients have reported adults with memory loss designing “flowers” from small blocks and kids in a physical education class developing a relay course out of large blocks. At Spain’s Le Méridien Ra Beach Hotel & Spa, the blocks keep kids entertained outdoors while parents relax on the patio. The Great Explorations Children’s Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, uses the blocks in multiple ways, including the on-site preschool and adult team-building exercises.
Croatia’s Plavi Svijet (Blue World Institute) provides an entire blue world – an environment of Imagination Playground Blue Blocks for open play, as the main attraction for birthday parties, and in educational workshops. Playroom manager Sunčana Sinković says, “Kids don’t want to leave our playroom, even after three or more hours!”
Portable and customizable
Part of their inherent versatility is that the block sets are lightweight and extremely portable and offer options for quickly transforming a space. “They can be put in a cart and easily wheeled to a new location,” says Stallman. “If you have a temporary empty space, you can bring in the blocks quickly and have a fun, safe play area. Or we can build a custom wall or furniture and create a permanent play space. The blocks also can be used for events or, since they’re lightweight, they can be taken out into the community.”
Custom block sets can fit an intellectual property (IP) or brand, enhance a promotion or special event and even lead to a new loose-part play concept. “Our team can create custom logos, custom walls, and specific parts for each location if that’s what the customer would like,” says Stallman. “We can take a concept and bring it from prototype to design to delivery very quickly.” He says that his company also facilitates conversations between their customers so that everyone is learning from each other. “All of that knowledge leads to new design and new uses.”
Liz Rossiter, director of Mud Kitchen, the distributor for Imagination Playground in Australia and New Zealand, says, “There is no better investment for our next generation. The blocks are a high-quality product that do not become stale or static but can grow with children. Our customers are never disappointed!”
The blocks have a five-year warranty, and can be cleaned and sanitized easily. Imagination Playground offers a Block Wash Kit as well as a list of commonly available products that can safely clean the blocks. Some organizations even make an event out of it by holding a “Blue Block Bath” and inviting kids to help give the blocks a scrub.
A labor of love
Imagination Playground as a company began as a partnership between Kaboom! – a nonprofit playground installer – and Rockwell Associates. Stallman’s foam fabrication company, Eco Global Manufacturing, was brought in to develop the proprietary formulation and cutting technology and to manage manufacturing and logistics. “When we started, it was a small project for us. It was a labor of love,” says Stallman.
Demand for Blue Blocks grew quickly. More parks departments began purchasing them, as did museums, attractions, schools, and camps. The UNICEF P.L.A.Y. Project, in partnership with Disney, has brought the blocks to more than 13,000 children in Bangladesh and Haiti. As production increased, a management team suggested moving manufacturing overseas, but Rockwell and Stallman wanted to maintain control over the raw materials, the quality, and the production.
In 2018, based on this shared vision for growth of the brand, David Rockwell sold his interest, and Stallman became the owner of Imagination Playground. “It’s a lot of fun to be involved from the very first blocks up to now,” says Stallman. “And we’re continuing to design, develop, and come up with new products every day.”
Imagination Playground participates in numerous trade shows throughout the year. In the latter part of 2022, they will exhibit at the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) conference in September (Phoenix, AZ) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Conference & Expo in November (Washington, DC). “If kids are at the show, they always find their way to our booth and hang out there all day, playing,” says Stallman. “If you’re wondering where your kids are, just look for the Blue Blocks.”
Imagination Playground website: www.imaginationplayground.com. International distributors: HAGS UK https://hags.co.uk/en-gb/home; MudKitchen Australia/New Zealand https://mudkitchen.com.au/; Korea https://www.ssnrt.kr/; Japan http://www.kompan.co.jp/