Only in New Orleans: Giant blocks help teach architecture, design

Back in the day, playgrounds were predictable: swings, monkey bars, a steel slide that burned the backs of your thighs on a sunny day.

Playgrounds have been rethought of late, and a recent innovation is the Imagination Playground in a Cart — a set of oversized blue foam blocks in geometrical shapes that let children design and build their own play space. There are a few sets of these blocks in New Orleans, including one at the Louisiana Children’s Museum.

A New Orleans startup nonprofit has taken that concept a step further with PlayBuild, an “imagination playground” that comes with a special curriculum geared to teaching kids about architecture and design, according to PlayBuild founder Angela Kyle and programming director Charlotte Jones, formerly of the Preservation Resource Center.

Thanks to KaBoom! and Dr. Pepper Snapple, PlayBuild was recently given a 2013 Imagination Playground in a Cart. The group will take delivery of the equipment this month and hopes to deploy it by Labor Day.

PlayBuild has located a lot at 2828 Thalia St. in Central City, within walking distance of eight schools, where the blocks will be used. The organization is partnering with afterschool programs such as the one at KIPP Central City and the CP3 AfterSchool Zone.

“We made a conscious choice to focus our efforts in Central City,” Kyle said, citing “the density of the youth population and the energy around the transformation that is happening” in the area.

Nearby, PlayBuild will wheel out a small portable library, supplied by the Uni Project, geared to teaching kids to understand and appreciate the New Orleans architecture that’s all around them, from Creole cottages to shotgun homes.

Volunteers and teachers will provide lessons on New Orleans architecture, design, city planning and sustainability to Central City first- and second-graders. “It’s about inspiring creativity and inspiring kids to see the design around them,” Kyle said.

In the short term, Kyle hopes that means kids will use the Imagination Playground to create their own fanciful environment.

In the long run, the group seeks to spark interest in design and building vocations among children. It’s already brought smaller scale design projects to local farmers markets and to a summer arts camp at the Ashe Cultural Center, where kids learned about New Orleans architecture and created their own with paper and crayons.

Volunteer helpers have included New Orleans design and building professionals, along with students from Tulane University, Kyle said.

PlayBuild will have a meeting and sign up volunteers on Monday at 6:30 p.m. in the Lavin-Bernick Center at Tulane University. Monetary donations are also helpful. For more information, call (504) 229-2229 or go to www.PlayBuild.org.

Annette Sisco is community news editor. She can be reached at asisco@theadvocate.com or at (504) 432-9257.