Every Borough has Playgrounds that Need Work, Our Site Visits Show

By Tobias Salinger

Click each dot to view our evaluations for playgrounds all over the city. The shaded areas represent the median income of each of the city’s community districts, with the darkest ones showing areas of lowest incomes. (Playground locations provided by the city Department of Parks and Recreation and median incomes come from census data. The inspections are based on criteria we developed using research by the Project for Public Places and the Urban Parks Institute)

The process of evaluating playgrounds is more than just tromping around to the city’s 1,240 playgrounds while ignoring social mores–and laws–about visiting play areas without children. There are often clipboards and notepads involved, as well as the latest research on what makes a playground a great place.

Temporal considerations blocked us from compiling a statistically-significant sample, but our evaluations do provide anecdotal documentation of the best and the worst New York City’s playgrounds have to offer. We judged each playground according to an eight-point assessment:

 1. Accessibility – Is the playground easy to get to?

 2. Context – Is the playground connected with its surrounding neighborhood in an area appealing to and frequented by kids?

 3. Equipment – Is the equipment in good shape?

 4. Condition – Is the playground both clean and safe?

 5. Variety of Uses – Are the different child play-uses situated together rather than cordoned off behind fences? (If it is a single-use playground like one jungle gym with no swings nearby, answer “no.”)

6. Unstructured Play – Are there any loose parts which children could turn into something else by imagination, like water, balls, sand, building blocks or other manipulatable materials?

7. Sociability – Are people there interacting with each other in a familiar or friendly way?

8. Places to Sit – Is there any one of the three following types of places for parents or babysitters to sit within eyeshot of the playing children: a concession stand with benches and picnic tables; a sidewalk café with tables and chairs; or just enough benches for everyone? 

Every borough has playgrounds with deficiencies, our site visits show. Thirty-one out of the 127 evaluations we conducted—24 percent—led to failing marks of four out of eight or less. The average rating of 5.61 demonstrates considerable room for improvement in the playgrounds we evaluated.

The most common failing is that many playgrounds offer children little in the way of unstructured play. Children, especially those in urban areas, need room for their imagination, according to widely-held theories. Sand, building blocks and other elements children can manipulate to their pleasure allow them to take vacations from the concrete and fenced-in realities of city life. But only 32 of the playgrounds we viewed feature such opportunities. A related measure, one judging whether the various play uses are grouped together or behind restrictive chain links, registered a nearly even split.

On the other hand, the vast majority of our evaluations demonstrated that the playgrounds are not difficult to get to and fit into the surrounding neighborhood’s context. Almost all of the playgrounds we looked at had plenty of places for supervising guardians to sit comfortably and 105 out of 127 were both clean and safe.

And, when we grouped the evaluations according to borough and the median income of the playgrounds’ communities, we found that each borough and income level had a playground with a perfect score.

While some of the city’s playgrounds are demonstrably worse than others, the majority provide a quality space for children to play.