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?

The importance of hands-on learning in family travel

L and her BFF, petting a baby chicken on the class field trip.

L and her BFF, petting a baby chicken on the class field trip.

Traveling can be a scary experience for my Big Girl. She’s terrified of hand driers. She can’t stand those toilets with automatic flushers. She panics at the mere sight of escalators.

Yet on today’s field trip (to Tolay Lake Regional Park) with her school, she had no problem petting a boa constrictor or a tarantula.

At first, the reality seemed almost incomprehensible to me—I was a chaperone on the trip and quite simply could not believe my eyes as I saw her stroking the snake’s head. Then, it hit me: L, like all kids, simply cannot resist the appeal of hands-on learning when she travels.

This concept is one I know well; Powerwoman and I opted to send both girls to a play-based preschool because we believe in the power of learning through doing and having fun. (I’m actually on the board of said preschool.) Still, it’s easy to forget the same realities apply when you’re with the kids away from home.

Think about it: Of all the museums you ever have visited as a family, the ones your kids remember most fondly likely are the ones that enabled them to interact with the exhibits. Your kids also probably love touch tanks and petting zoos. Almost all kids do. Because they are KIDS.

What does this tell us about the kinds of trips we should be taking?

For starters, we should be putting our children in positions where they can use their hands with the stuff they’re seeing. This doesn’t necessarily mean monument tourism, art museums, or guided tours from the top of a moving bus. It does mean (guided or unguided) hikes in nature, art or cooking classes, and up-close-and-personal interactions.

It also reminds us that, often times, those trips with the least amount of structure are the ones that end up being most memorable.

I’m not saying you have to wing everything. Instead, I’m saying that those parents who set aside a few hours a day on a vacation for kids to engineer impromptu play usually are amazed by where the days lead.

Some days the kids might build a pillow fort out of couch cushions in a hotel; other days the kids might find a herpetologist and pet a boa.

The more you craft your vacations to allow your kids to do—the more you give them the freedom to do these things at their own pace—the better off everyone will be. In our case, a kid might even surprise you every now and again. And someday, she’ll punctuate her good mood with a ride down the escalator or a nice and lengthy pee in a public pot.

How do you ensure that your family vacations enable kids to be hands-on?

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