Photo: Katie Winter

Designing for Children sponsored the design and construction of innovative play spaces for children inside of three community gardens in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. 


Despite working in drastically different site conditions, each Design Trust Fellow was responsible for featuring one sand component, one water component and one shelter structure to encourage social interaction and material manipulation. This same design criteria is the conceptual foundation of the South Street Seaport Imagination Playground completed by David Rockwell in 2011, which enables children to create their own play equipment and spaces out of reconfigurable parts. The second Imagination Playground will be located the Betsy Head Park in Brownsville, Brooklyn and is scheduled to break ground in the spring of 2014 and to be completed in 2015.


Community gardens offer a particularly valuable solution to the lack of safe, accessible, and developmental appropriate outdoor space for young urban children. These small, restricted- access oases, overseen by watchful community residents, are often safer than public parks in many communities. Community gardens are often more conveniently located to residential neighborhoods than regional parks. Many gardens also contain a variety of plant life offering interesting learning opportunities for children.

Over the past several years the construction and maintenance of playgrounds in New York City’s public parks has been curtailed due to ongoing budget cutbacks, and many public playgrounds are rightly perceived by parents as unsafe to visit. New York City is not alone in this problem; children's safety in streets, parks and playgrounds is increasingly threatened in many urban areas, and children in low-income neighborhoods are often those most lacking in access to safe play space.  

The community gardens that now thrive in low-income neighborhoods offer a safe environment for outdoor activities for young children.  Because they were created by residents, many of these gardens are already fenced, clean, well maintained and filled with the watchful eyes of parents and neighbors.  They act much like a collective backyard, considered part of the home and cared for by residents. Community gardens have already begun to take on roles traditionally played by community centers. This project will help expand the current function of community gardens and will promote and support the critical role these “volunteer gardens” play in their communities.


Working in partnership with the Children's Environments Research Group, the Design Trust for Public Space awarded three fellowships to designers to create demonstration play areas incorporating CERG’s research in three New York City community gardeners. Bill and Mary Buchen worked with the Fordham/Bedford Lotbusters Garden in the Bronx, Kate Dodd with the East New York Success Garden in Brooklyn, and Katie Winter with the ARROW Community Garden in Queens.

These studies demonstrated the overwhelmingly positive effects that certain activities, such as sand building, earth play, play-acting and simple contact with nature have on early childhood development. These activities promote creative, social, and sensory development in very young children, in contrast to traditional playground equipment (swings, slides, climbing frames, etc.) which emphasize gross-motor activity and require constant hands-on supervision. The garden play areas include elements such as shelter structures and playhouses with benches, tables, chalkboards, as well as sand and water areas and planting beds.

The short project publication combines the lessons from the design and building of the demonstration projects together with CERG’s research on child development and its efforts to create children’s spaces in community gardens. It is intended to serve as a beginning guide, with basic step-by-step instructions, for gardeners and parents interested in creating similar areas in their own communities.

You'd be forgiven for thinking the new, David Rockwell-designed playground coming to South Street Seaport is the greatest, newest, most fabulous, innovative thing ever . . . But the idea, while innovative, isn't actually new. In 1997, the nonprofit Design Trust for Public Space commissioned and installed similar interactive-play equipment at community gardens in Astoria, East New York, and Fordham/Bedford.

Alec Applebaum, New York Magazine

Key Milestones

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Select project

June 1996

The project jury selects the proposal from the Children’s Environments Research Group who wants to "demonstrate how play areas in community gardens can promote creative, social and sensory development in young children."

Assemble team

April 1997

The Design Trust issues a Call for Fellows to design and construct prototypical children’s play areas in three separate community gardens. 

Conduct research

July 1997

The Fellows begin planning and developing concepts for the three demonstration sites. 

Kate Dodd

Test - Demonstration project #1

October 1997

Design Trust Fellow Kate Dodd begins construction on her project at the East New York Success Garden in Brooklyn

Test - Demonstration project #2

May 1998

Design Trust Fellow Katie Winter designs and builds three play areas – sand, water and shelter - in the ARROW Community Garden in Queens.   

Test - Demonstration project #3

July 1998

Design Trust Fellows Bill & Mary Buchen design and build play areas in the Fordham/Bedford Lotbusters Garden in the Bronx.    

Synthesize and produce

October 1999

The project team begins to synthesize their research and activities in order to create a set of final recommendations. 

Promote and inform

October 2002

A public panel discussion is held at the CUNY Graduate Center called “Playing in the City: Creating Public Play Spaces for Children in New York City.”    

Release findings

July 2004

The findings are released as a simple PDF to serve as a useful guide for gardeners and parents interested in creating similar areas in their own communities. 


October 2011

Drawing inspiration from our demonstration projects, the new Imagination Playground in Lower Manhattan enables children to create their own play equipment and spaces out of reconfigurable parts. 

Courtesy Rockwell Group