4 reasons to love New York City playgrounds

The view from West Thames

The view from West Thames

I spent five years living in New York City, and never had any idea how many kick-ass playgrounds were there until I visited last month with kids. We were there for six days in all, visited eight playgrounds, and researched about a dozen more. Here are four things I enjoyed and appreciated about the playgrounds we experienced, and about the new perspective on NYC they helped me achieve.

Water features

Most of the playgrounds we visited (and many of the playgrounds we didn’t visit) boast some sort of water features—free and public ways to cool off. Many of these features were glorified sprinklers that shot water from the ground and invited kids to run through the spray. At the West Thames Park Playground in Battery Park City, my girls and some family friends spent the better part of an entire afternoon running through the water feature. It never got old – even after they all soaked through their clothes.

Varied structures

Modern playgrounds can all look alike: Metal bars, plastic spheroid connectors, triangle trees, etc. While New York City certainly had its fair share of playgrounds with this design, there also were dozens of other set-ups. One of our favorites, the Diana Ross Playground in Central Park, was an old-school wooden playground with beams and bridges and more. I’ve read the playground was built with money Diana Ross donated to the park after a concert there in 1983. Yes, this means the park is old, but the setup still works—proving nicer and newer isn’t always better.

Enclosures

Here in California, playgrounds are open to all—usually the only fenced-in parts are the portions designated for super-little kids. In New York City, all of the playgrounds had fences lining the perimeter. One of the playgrounds that seemed to do this best was the Hippo Playground in Riverside Park, on Manhattan’s West Side. This design is a great way to limit coming and going. It’s also a wonderful safety feature; as a parent, you can rest assured that if you’ve got eyes on the only exit, your kid isn’t going anywhere without you knowing about it.

Shade

Just about all of the playgrounds we visited in New York City offered some degree of shade. In some cases, like at West Thames, shade came in the form of a manmade shade structure, built like a canopy over the play structures. At Washington Market Park in Tribeca (arguably THE BEST playground we hit during our visit because it had the most varied play structures), trees provided shade throughout. This playground also had clean bathrooms, an added bonus for when the big kids realized they’d forgotten to go back at the hotel.

Since we’ve come home, every time my kids have looked back on their experience in the Big Apple, the playgrounds are right up there with black-and-white cookies, pizza, and walking around at night as their favorite parts of the trip. That means the playgrounds enhanced the visit for all of us. Which is good news for everyone involved.

What’s your favorite playground city and why?

A NYC walk to remember

Girls owning NYC streets

Girls owning NYC streets

As transplanted New Yorkers living in Northern California, my wife and I have TONS of memories of living in New York. We’ve shared dozens and dozens of those with our kids over the years.

One of our recollections that has stuck out most for the kids: The fact that you can walk everywhere.

We live in the country now, so you can imagine why the notion of ambulating is so intriguing. We can get places! With no car! (We did this in London when we lived there in 2013, but R was too little to remember it, and L seems to remember destinations instead of how we got to them.) The girls also have said they are fascinated by the ideas of buildings twinkling like stars, smoke rising from subway grates, and relatively empty streets. I think they have imagined walking at night in the city to be like walking on air.

Naturally, then, during our family vacation in New York City earlier this month, we HAD to walk around at night. We got our chance after meeting friends for dinner and dessert in Little Italy. The restaurants were 1.2 miles from our hotel. So we hoofed it “home.”

Watching the big girls fulfill this fantasy was nothing short of bliss. They started by holding hands with our friends’ kids, skipping and singing as they bounced down the sidewalk a few paces ahead of us. They marveled at the illuminated skyscrapers. They jumped when taxicabs honked horns. They even stopped to peruse the offerings of a little bodega in Chinatown.

When our friends peeled off to do some shopping, our pod continued on foot, the girls continuing their love affair with all things urban and night.

Even Baby G got in on the curiosity act; from her perch in Powerwoman’s Ergo, she took it all in, smiling and gurgling with delight.

Yes, there was drama—a cabbie nearly ran R off the road, and when we spotted a rat, the kids shrieked. There also were the requisite complaints—about five blocks before we reached our hotel, L complained of her foot hurting and R said she was too tired to go on. (Both persevered.)

Finally, about 30 minutes after we left Little Italy, we arrived at the hotel, safe and sound. As we rode the elevator, the baby triggered a yawn chain that left the big girls scraping the bottom of their respective barrels of energy for the day. Through her squinty eyes, with her body entering ragdoll-mode, L put it all into perspective: “That might have been my favorite part of the trip, guys. I wish we could walk everywhere.”

Life lessons from a broken tooth

IMG_20160623_143119“There are consequences when you don’t listen.”

I tell my girls this simple, non-threatening phrase at least 10 times every day. Most days, it amounts to nothing more than hot air—they’re being idiots, I utter my mantra, they ignore me, and I take away a Shopkin for 24 (or sometimes 72) hours. Some days, however, I utter the phrase and end up looking like the family travel version of Nostradamus.

We had one of those latter experiences last week in New York City. L had been a bit sloppy all day, and by the afternoon, she was having trouble standing on two feet. By the time we returned to our hotel, she was quite literally jumping off the walls. In flip-flops.

I told her about the consequences and asked her to stop. She didn’t. I repeated my line about consequences and asked her to stop again. She grunted at me. When I mentioned the consequences and asked her to stop a third time, I made sure my tone was even kinder and sweeter than before.

That’s when she slipped, fell face-down on the marble floor of the hotel lobby, and broke off a triangular chunk of her left front (grown-up) tooth.

At the moment of impact, everybody froze. Powerwoman was worried L had hit her head. R was worried she was going to get blamed. I was just sort of dumbfounded. Seconds later, L started crying in a way I’m not sure I’ve heard her cry before. My wife and I tried our best to stay calm, comforting our eldest while we waited for the gushing blood, convinced we were going to have to hop in a cab and rush the kid to a pediatric dentist right then and there. But the blood never came.

In fact, after about three minutes, L quieted down, dried her eyes, and said she felt fine. Just like that, the crisis had passed. The only lasting effect: My kid looked (and still looks) like a (very adorable) pirate.

Thankfully, as we found out later, it was a clean crack—though she lost about half of the tooth, somehow the crack missed the pulp chamber (that’s the part where the nerves are; the part that REALLY hurts if you expose it). Yes, she’ll need reconstructive work on the tooth later this summer. She’ll probably also get a crown on that tooth at some point in her 20s and have it for the rest of her life.

Another thing L will take away: A classic example of those consequences when you don’t listen.

Personally, I consider this the ultimate souvenir. My friend (and kick-ass travel guru) Rachel Rudwall has this theory that everything in life is either a great experience or a great story down the road. I’d say my daughter’s tooth adventures in New York check both of those boxes. For all of us involved.

Space and comfort: The New York family travel unicorn

Living room at Q&A

Living room at Q&A

Anybody who ever has traveled with children under the age of 10 understands that the two most important considerations when booking a hotel room: SPACE and COMFORT. The reasons for this are simple. Kids like to be kids, which is to say they get silly and cranky and loud and wiggly, no matter where you are. In these instances, it’s good not to be right on top of them.

Many destinations offer thousands of accommodations that fit this bill. New York City, however, typically isn’t one of them.

Nope, my hometown is famous for rooms the size of closets. I’ve stayed in a bunch of these types of rooms on return visits in the years since I left Manhattan for good (in 2002). Every trip—even those during which I didn’t have kids yet—I swore: Never, ever would I attempt to spend a family vacation in a room that small.

This is why I’m so excited about the hotel we found for our trip to the Big Apple next week. Technically, the place is called Q&A, and it’s part of a national brand named Furnished Quarters. It might as well be called NEW YORK HOTEL UNICORN. The company specializes in accommodations that comprise furnished apartments and all of the amenities of a hotel resort (restaurant, bar, fitness center, etc.). The room products are like apartment rentals or high-end AirBnBs. They’re just the nicest ones you’ve ever booked.

I stumbled upon the company by accident, really; I was complaining to a travel industry friend about the size of New York hotel rooms and he scooped me. A few days later, I booked a two-bedroom furnished apartment at Q&A. For relatively the same price as a hotel room in Times Square.

Of course our hotel is NOT in Times Square (thank goodness). Instead, it’s in the Financial District, on the southern (well, southeastern, really) tip of Manhattan.

I’m excited about the location because it’s a short walk from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (to which we’ve never been), and is close to the Governors Island ferry (stay tuned for an original piece about this), the parks at Battery Park City, and pretty much every subway line. It’s also a hop, skip, and a jump from Park Slope, where we’ve got a bunch of friends and family. (It’s also close to the Brooklyn Bridge; yay Little R!)

But, really, I’m most excited about the space. To spread out! On a family trip! In New York!

The fact that Powerwoman and I will have our own space at a New York hotel feels almost decadent. The notion that L and Little R will have their own space feels indulgent. The fact that all of the little ones will have room to stretch and wiggle and run and be kids feels almost too good to be true. Bring it on.

Pop-up introduction to NYC

Brooklyn Bridge pop-up

Brooklyn Bridge pop-up

We’re less than one week before our first family trip to New York City—the metropolis both Powerwoman and I call home.

My wife and I are excited for a week of pizza, bagels, bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, and black-and-white cookies. The girls are excited to see buildings that actually scrape the sky, the Brooklyn Bridge, and “the biggest park ever.” And they’re getting excited about other stuff every day.

We’ve pulled out all the stops to educate them about NYC in advance. Among our materials: Old photos (including some with the Twin Towers), anecdotes from their grandparents (all four of whom also hail from the NY area), our own artistic renderings, and a mix of books—some geared toward grownups, others for kids.

One book has emerged from this mini-library as a fave: the new Pop-Up New York book from Lonely Planet Kids.

The book, which retails for $9.99, is short and sweet, with eight spreads and six pop-ups in all. R’s favorite: The Brooklyn Bridge, which opens up to reveal both sides of the icon (and a boat passing underneath). L’s favorite: The Empire State Building, which has a pull-up tower that basically means the image doubles in size.

(Personally, my favorite is the hot-dog stand with a pop-up umbrella. But it’s not about me.)

In fact, the girls have been so excited about these two pop-ups in particular that Powerwoman and I have decided to organize the trip so we can visit BOTH icons IRL when we’re there. For R, who is obsessed with bridges of every kind (if you remember, she loves the Golden Gate), this is a particularly big deal; she notes daily how much she can’t wait to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Thanks, Lonely Planet Kids, for sparking excitement in my kids about our next trip.

Family travel experiences for all

A family travel hero.

A family travel hero.

A wonderful thing happened today in New York City, when an actor in “The King and I,” on Broadway (at Lincoln Center Theater), spoke up publicly on behalf of a mother who was traveling with a child on the Autism spectrum. The actor’s name: Kelvin Moon Loh.

Kelvin wrote about the incident on his Facebook page, and a friend alerted me to it. Here, in its entirety (and unedited), is his post:

I am angry and sad.

Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.

That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.

You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them.

No.

Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?

The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.

It so happened that during “the whipping scene”, a rather intense moment in the second act, a child was heard yelping in the audience. It sounded like terror. Not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row- seemingly not autistic screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then. How is this any different?

His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of “why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”. This is wrong. Plainly wrong.

Because what you didn’t see was a mother desperately trying to do just that. But her son was not compliant. What they didn’t see was a mother desperately pleading with her child as he gripped the railing refusing- yelping more out of defiance. I could not look away. I wanted to scream and stop the show and say- “EVERYONE RELAX. SHE IS TRYING. CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT SHE IS TRYING???!!!!” I will gladly do the entire performance over again. Refund any ticket because-

For her to bring her child to the theater is brave. You don’t know what her life is like. Perhaps, they have great days where he can sit still and not make much noise because this is a rare occurrence. Perhaps she chooses to no longer live in fear, and refuses to compromise the experience of her child. Maybe she scouted the aisle seat for a very popular show in case such an episode would occur. She paid the same price to see the show as you did for her family. Her plan, as was yours, was to have an enjoyable afternoon at the theater and slowly her worst fears came true.

I leave you with this- Shows that have special performances for autistic audiences should be commended for their efforts to make theater inclusive for all audiences. I believe like Joseph Papp that theater is created for all people. I stand by that and also for once, I am in a show that is completely FAMILY FRIENDLY. The King and I on Broadway is just that- FAMILY FRIENDLY- and that means entire families- with disabilities or not. Not only for special performances but for all performances. A night at the theater is special on any night you get to go.

And no, I don’t care how much you spent on the tickets.

What makes this post so poignant is that Kelvin (follow him on Twitter here) didn’t even know the woman—he just spoke out for what he believed to be just. IMHO, he was 100 percent right. And his argument applies to all forms of family travel activities, not just family-friendly Broadway shows. (For all we know, the mother and her child likely were visiting New York City from somewhere else.)

To echo Kelvin’s point, all families, regardless of their situations or realities, deserve the right to travel and experience new places, people, and things. The more easily we all remember this, the better off we all will be.

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