"Hellooooooo!" roars a voice on the side of the road. "Welcome to the rock'n'roll playground! Come on in, you can build anything you want in the whole world!! And we have hammers and nails… "
The voice is coming from a young woman named Jackie Katz, who is smiling at every kid passing by on Governor's Island, off the coast of Manhattan. Behind her, framed by ancient buildings built when the US Coast Guard inhabited the island, is a big open space crowded with what looks like piles of junk.
My six-year-old son, 'S', ambles towards the starting blocks, eyes and mouth wide open, legs restless. He is eagerly waiting for me to read and sign the mandatory waiver making all parents aware that there can be danger here, and that the play:groundNYC founders and employees can't be held responsible for injuries.
Parents generally seem on board. "I'd rather they get hurt now and learn to deal with it," says Samara, the mother of an eight-year-old.
In an instant, S is gone. He disappears behind the spaceship-looking structure that was built the day before from wood, a piece of grey fence, what looks like a carpet, a broken umbrella, an old-style telephone, a shiny shower head, a few tyres and a duck head.
We are early. The place is his. Nose on the floor, exploring textures and weighing unidentified objects, S talks to himself – something about pirates. He starts gathering four bright orange cones, a piece of cord, and a bent white plastic pipe. I ask him what he is doing. He doesn't respond : he's too busy designing, calculating, imagining.
My heart sinks as I suddenly remember my childhood in France, which I spent playing in the streets for hours with the neighbour's kids. No rules, no laws, no "you must, you should, you could". There was only the adventure, the tree that becomes a castle, the rough energy of the group, the fear of jumping, the intense excitement of being first, the attack of alien ants…