An Adventure Playground for Unstructured Fun in Abu Dhabi

Free Play's kids' park in Abu Dhabi Photograph by Gabriela Maj

Of all the eye-catching construction projects in Abu Dhabi, a playground outside its newly opened Hazza Bin Zayed athletic stadium is one of the least ostentatious. The requisite monkey bars, swings, slides, and sandboxes have been replaced by sculptural pieces designed for unstructured play rather than prescribed activities.

The abstract-looking equipment is the work of Dan Schreibman, a New Jersey management consultant, who began rethinking the playground after watching his daughters, who were then 3 and 5 years old, interacting with Richard Serra’s mazelike sculptures made from large, curved pieces of sheet metal. No other play set, including the one he bought for his own suburban backyard, seemed to capture his kids’ imaginations in the same way. He realized that most traditional playgrounds are functional but limiting, guiding kids into specific modes of fun—climbing, sliding, and swinging. He decided to build a different model, one that allowed children to engage in unstructured free play. “Great imagination,” he says, “comes from children exploring on their own.”

It can also have mental health and developmental benefits. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, self-led playtime could help alleviate some of the stress kids feel when pressured to excel in academic and extracurricular activities (pdf).

Photograph by Gabriela Maj

Since the 1940s, playgrounds in the U.S. have favored exercise over imagination. A few designers are now trying to correct that course. The New York architect David Rockwell, for instance, designed the Imagination Playground kit consisting of lightweight, movable blocks that give kids the opportunity to explore—without letting them play with fire, as they’re invited to do at so-called adventure playgrounds, such as the Land in North Wales.

Schreibman launched his company, Free Play, in 2013 after working with the New York design firm LTL Architects on four distinct pieces. The so-called Corn Field is a group of vertical “stalks” that can be bent to the ground but spring back up gently. They can be outfitted with internal lights to glow, and Schreibman says that he’s exploring installing sensors in them, so that the tubes illuminate when touched. The Weeping Willow effectively inverts the Cornfield, with a thicket of 6.5-foot-long ropes that hang almost to the ground. Children can hide in, or climb and swing on, or hide in the dense curtains of nautical ropes.

Photograph by Gabriela Maj

The two other pieces are upgrades of the jungle gym. The Ant Farm is a series of organically shaped tubes seemingly suspended in midair to provide spaces for climbing as well nooks for socializing with friends. A cube, called the Maze, has Swiss cheese–like holes that can be climbed and a labyrinthine interior. All the pieces are customizable to a degree and built by a manufacturer specializing in conventional playground equipment. Schreibman consulted with safety experts during the design process to ensure that they meet safety standards.

Priced from $30,000 to $50,000, the pieces are meant to be niche products. Schreibman says he doesn’t expect to compete with makers of playground equipment here in the U.S., where demand isn’t great. He has set his sites on growing markets, especially in parts of Asia and the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates, and is pitching his designs to landscape architects with budgets for more inventive solutions. The FIFA stadium in Abu Dhabi is Free Play’s first installation.

Regardless of how many commissions he nabs, he doesn’t expect to quit his day job and retire to enjoy more grownup free play. “There’s some market there,” he says, “but it isn’t enough to think you’ll get wealthy.”