(click to enlarge)
Carpeted play structure (click on right side of picture for 'next' and left side for 'previous')
Sand box
Drama about to happen
Inlay carpeting in the toddler area by Tom Repasky
Upper East Side Gothic Photo: Erica Berger/New York Newsday

Sometimes when you want something done right you just have to do it yourself.

When Allen McCullough was an actor with a toddler and a lot of time on his hands, he and his son Angus found that there weren't too many interesting places play in the city, especially when the weather was bad. So he and his wife, Randolyn, wrote a business plan, hired Andrew Bartle and Jon Kirschenfeld of Architrope to design a space and Schoolworks for the play part, added 5000 pounds of sand and created PlaySpace, an indoor playground for small children.

Immediately he became every East Side parent's best friend. PlaySpace provided a place where kids could play with big toys and water, run and wheel around as fast as they could go, have a snack and then build a sand castle. Try that in a 2-bedroom walk-up on the Upper East Side.

The sand box hovered over a busy intersection that could be viewed by kids through huge windows. It was like being at the beach but being able to see fire trucks rush by. Randolyn, also in the theater world, made costumes for the mini stage and got puppets for the puppet theater. Kids had a chance to do some serious play and parents got to meet and shmooze in the cafe. A good time was had by all and whether parents knew it or not, their kids were learning. In essence, for the price of an afternoon's admission, they were enrolled in a very sophisticated preschool in which kids were in charge of their own curriculum.

The thread that runs from this commercial enterprise to not-for-profit children's museums to early childhood educational settings is that play is how young children learn. It has been proven again and again in research studies all over the world that when they are provided with an appropriate environment and are able to freely choose how they play, they will thrive and ultimately be better prepared for the social and academic challenges ahead. Being able to read at 2 years old or being computer literate at 4 may seem like goals to aim for but play is where the real action is and we, as a society, must recognize that.