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How to Restore American Creativity: Bring Imagination Back to Play

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According to Newsweek, American creativity is on the decline. It's no huge surprise to me. As someone who specializes in child's play, I've witnessed -- and fought against -- the steady rise in the number of hours the average American child spends in front a screen (now 7.5 daily, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation) and the parallel decline in unstructured outdoor play. Even when kids do play outside, many find their options limited to ultra-safe, standards-focused playgrounds that do little to challenge a child's body or mind.

Remember when a cardboard box used to inspire hours of imaginative play? It's a doghouse; no, it's a drum; no, it's a secret fort! A cardboard box comes with no instructions. It doesn't require batteries. It doesn't talk to you when you shake it or pull a string. And yet, children are drawn toward boxes, just as they are drawn toward bottles, or rubber bands, or Styrofoam peanuts.

That's because kids are naturally creative. Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in creativity, innovation, and human resources, points out that all children have "sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think." It's our job to give them access to environments that will inspire and fuel their imaginations -- and that's where we've been failing them.

The beauty of it is that these environments don't have to be lavish, expensive, or complex. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play, points out that in its purest form, "play is purposeless." With objects as simple as boxes, rubber bands, and Styrofoam peanuts, children can create their own narratives and games; build something and tear it down; or simply play to enjoy shapes and textures.

We need to let our kids spend more time roaming freely in forests, backyards, fields, parks, and beaches -- all environments rife with opportunities for creative play. And we need to rethink our playgrounds as places that not only let children run around and let off steam, but that also challenge, stimulate, and inspire their imaginations.

The first Imagination Playground Park, which opens this week at Burling Slip in the South Street Seaport area of New York City, is one such example. The park includes a sandpit, cascading water channel, rope climbing structure, and loose parts -- such as burlap bags, buckets, shovels, brooms, carts and fabric. It also includes Imagination Playground blocks -- blue blocks made from biodegradable foam that come in a variety of shapes and sizes and provide endless possibilities for creative play. See for yourself:

2010-07-27-BurlingSlip3.jpg 2010-07-27-BurlingSlip4.jpg

Imagination Playground is influenced by European Adventure Playgrounds (three also exist in California), where play workers supervise children, transforming their unstructured environments with found objects and materials. Through Imagination Playground in a Box -- a mobile version of Imagination Playground that can be installed in schools, parks, and other community playspaces -- and through the planned construction of more parks like Burling Slip, we can hopefully fight the decline of creativity by putting imagination back into play.

But there's no need to wait for an Imagination Playground to come to you -- kids can make their own in the meantime. It's up to you to give them the freedom and space to do it.

• Learn more about the Imagination Playground Park in Burling Slip.
• Learn more about Imagination Playground in a Box.