By Lauren Rothman
With many playgrounds across the five boroughs plagued by out-of-date or ill-maintained equipment, poor accessibility and litter, there’s no doubt some could use improvements. But New York also happens to be home to some of the most high-tech, innovative and creatively stimulating play areas in the country.
The Bloomberg administration made these public areas a priority: more playgrounds have been built and enhanced over the past decade than during any other time period in the city’s history since Robert Moses’ day.
“As well as being fun and engaging, New York City playgrounds provide environments that encourage children’s social-emotional, sensory-perceptual motor, cognitive and physical development,” said Vickie Karp, director of public affairs at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.Karp cited the South Street Seaport’s Imagination Playground as one of the city’s best, and a recent citywide survey conducted by Time Out New York shows playground-goers agree. Designed by architect David Rockwell, this playground opened to fanfare in June 2010. The park eschews traditional jungle gyms in favor of a supply of blue foam shapes that kids can mold into structures they want to play in. To help keep children cool in the summer, the playground is outfitted with a variety of sprinklers and water-filled barrels.
“There’s that control-freak moment, when you think, ‘Oh, god—the kid is going to get his socks wet,’” Rockwell said. “But then you let go.”
This “free play” came with a hefty price tag: the space cost $7.4 million to plan and build.It’s not surprising that a wealthy area of downtown Manhattan would be home to such an intricately-designed play space. But one of the hottest playground openings in recent years occurred across the river, in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Part of Brooklyn Bridge Park and maintained by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, the waterfront’s Pier 6 had been barren and inaccessible to residents for years. It was restored throughout the early 2000s, and opened to the public in the summer of 2010. The playground features a “Water Lab” filled with pools to splash in and a giant sandbox called “Sand Village,” with a tall climbing structure at its center. For children that prefer a more natural setting that offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of New York City, there’s Battery Park City’s Teardrop Park. This space is filled with huge boulders, green lawns and shady cobblestone paths. The center of the action is the park’s long, slippery slide, said to shoot kids out far faster than the average slide.
Sarah Swymner, a babysitter in New York City, maintains a blog called “NYC Park Hopper,” where she details her experiences at a range of city playgrounds with the two small girls she cares for. Swymer said the park’s superfast slide is a major draw for adventurous kids.
“For the record, when wet, the slide really does shoot out kids like bullets,” Swymner wrote in a July 2011 blog post. “Out of the three of us, only Lexi was brave enough to go down.”One of the best-loved parks in Queens is Hunters Point South, a wide-open expanse of Astroturf and real grass that opens right onto the waterfront, affording direct views of Manhattan all the way from midtown to the Brooklyn Bridge. The playground here, too, receives high marks from residents. Like many city playgrounds, this one’s distinguishing feature is an innovative water play area. Kelly O, a blogger at the kids’ activity website Mommy Poppins, described it:
“The cool water feature…forms a river that wraps halfway around an AstroTurf hill that kids can roll down. You’ll find another sprinkler system right outside the playground, where the water gently shoots up from holes in the ground—great for little ones who don’t like getting blasted in the face. There’s also a tall white rod mister.”
“My kids loved it so much I had trouble convincing them to leave,” she added.New York has some great spaces for kids, and now there’s a playground adults can enjoy: at Macombs Dam Park in the Bronx. Visitors older than 12 can clamber on monkey bars, do pull-ups on a series of beams, and work out their abs on a variety of metal racks. In a concept inspired by similar parks in Europe and Asia, city officials hope to lure sedentary residents out to play and in doing so, get in shape.
“Let’s face it, most of us dread going to the gym,” Dr. David Ludwig, a pediatrician and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor at the Harvard Medical School, told the New York Times recently. “The point is to make physical activity fun, easy and accessible, so it’s the normal thing to do.”
Karp, the Parks Department spokesperson, said that playgrounds in the city are built to appeal to the widest range of New Yorkers.
“NYC Parks strives to provide the greatest play value for a wide range of ages and abilities,” she said.