Ali Ngom, the son of a Senegalese immigrant who grew up in New York state, saw an opportunity to turn his love of play into a successful business. The best part is that he gets to help kids along the way.
Ngom’s company, New York Society of Play, was launched in October 2019 and recently opened its headquarters in Greenpoint at 79 West Street. After-school classes, summer programs, birthday parties, and even Friday night drop-off events are offered at New York Society of Play.
Ngom utilizes nearby Transmitter Park as a space for outdoor activities, and there are classes at other locations nearby like pinkFROG (221 N 9th St.) in Williamsburg and online.
New York Society of Play is a safe space where kids can engage in live-action role-playing games like Fantasy Frontier and Dungeons and Dragons. In games like these, kids team up to go on quests and defeat monsters and other enemies with handcrafted weapons like foam swords and magic.
Ngom designs Society of Play’s programs to be engaging and imaginatively robust with “crunch.” In the game world, crunch refers to programs that are mechanics-heavy with rule systems. The opposite of crunch is fluff, when games are light and fluffy. When Greenpointers visited Society of Play, one young player explained crunch to mean that “you have to use different tactics.” He provided an example of playing games with newly-created shields. He said it makes the games “exciting” and “a lot of fun.”
One of the most special aspects of what Ngom has built at Society of Play is what he calls the social contract. The social contract contains five ingredients necessary for healthy play: safety, trust, respect, cooperation, and consent. Ngom believes that “play can be rigorous and painless and constructive” and established the social contract to practice these tools. He explained that kids internalize social contract over time, in summer and during the school year.
As a part of the social contract, kids at Society of Play do “shoutouts” where they talk about something someone else did that made their day better, with bonus points for how it relates for social contract. “Some are initially resistant, but after awhile they encourage each other when it’s not their turn,” said Ngom.
Ngom has worked with kids for 13 years, in spaces like the 92nd Street Y, a game lab in Park Slope, and many after school programs. He noticed that there were places when play was undirected. “When everything is a game, everyone is a toy,” explained Ngom, “without an empathetic component.” “Empathy is what makes play a human and soothing experience,” he said. “There is a difference between being played at and being played with.”
Ngom makes all of the toy weapons at Society of Play with his two hands. “Working with children is one of the great joys of my life,” Ngom said. “I love seeing them have fun with the things I make.” Ngom likes to keep the weapons interesting and gains inspiration from kung fu movies. One example is the kusarigama, which is a traditional Japanese ninja tool.
The other staff members at Society of Play are just as excited about play as Ngom. They all have to be quick on their feet in addition to being good with kids. “One minute you are a bloodthirsty monster and the next an old lady,” said Ngom. The staff are essentially making up the storyline as they go.
After designing games for children for 13 years, Ngom has strong beliefs about games for children and how they should be designed. He thinks many companies “low ball them.”
“Children love to be engaged and want to be mentally stimulated,” he said. The games that Ngom designs give kids a sense of agency. He believes that you can “emotionally and intellectually show yourself through play,” and that “we can all be part of a society of play.”
To learn more about New York Society of Play, visit their website here.