Playgrounds are a city kid’s backyard, and New York has had plenty of time to figure out what kids want. The first permanent playground structure was established in 1903 at Seward Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with the goal of moving children at play off the streets and out of the rivers (a thought that makes modern New York parents shudder). More than a century later, New York is in the midst of a playground revolution, with older playgrounds being renovated to better reflect current ideologies about how children play and newer playgrounds constructed with the twin goals of better stimulating young minds and bodies while also integrating seamlessly into the environment and ecosystem of the city. While the following amazing playgrounds are all open year-round, the summer season from Memorial Day to Labor Day is when water functions are turned on (remember to bring bathing suits). But truly the best feature of them all is that a visit to the parks doesn’t cost a thing.
Architect David Rockwell designed imagination Playground, opened in 2010 across from South Street Seaport, with a focus on fostering, well, imagination. The adventurous space has sand, water (in the summer months) and oversized foam blocks with which children can build, create, and dream. The playground is sited on what was once a cargo unloading area, and its design recalls a ship’s deck, with the various elements tied together by ramps and flooring of reclaimed teak. At Imagination, children create their own play structures using those massive foam blocks and other “loose parts” such as plastic wheelbarrows and small car tires. A crow’s nest lookout reached by secret stairways and a rope climbing structure mimicking a ship’s rigging, which rises out of the ample sandpit, enhance the park’s nautical vibe. When your kid is tuckered out, head across the street to South Street Seaport to visit the tall ships that helped inspire the playground.
Nearest Subway: A, C; 2, 3; 4, 5 to Fulton St.
Pier 51 at Hudson River Park
This is one of New York City’s most thoughtful playgrounds, with innovative play features designed to reflect the city’s native ecosystems. Located in the West Village at the Hudson River Park, which runs along the West Side Highway, the playground’s expansive views of the Hudson River and New Jersey beyond contribute to the sense of freedom and play. The park has plenty of structures, such as a spiral ramp leading to a pirate’s lookout, swings, monkey bars and mammoth jungle gyms, but what really shines are its water features. An intricate sprinkler system leading through a sand play area and into a canal pays homage to Minetta Brook, once part of Manhattan’s wetland ecosystem (the brook now runs underground). The system of showers, fountains and buckets can be interactively controlled, making for an exciting, splashy afternoon of fun. Whimsical brass animals such as turtles and crabs dotted throughout the playground also recall Manhattan’s ecological past.
Nearest Subway: A, C, E to 14th St.; L to 8th Ave.
Union Square Park Playground
Completed in 2010, this is one of the newest playgrounds to make the list. Nestled on the long-underutilized north end of Union Square, and created as part of larger north-end development scheme, the playground was designed into three “rooms.” The toddler area in the western section includes a swing set, climbing platform and sand and water play area. The center area caters to school-age children (ages 5 to 12) with its highly active play equipment, and the eastern section offers a climbing and sliding dome and tube slide. The playground is full of futuristic play features like the Pulsar (a helix-shaped climbing feature), large “cattails” made of bendable metal, and “the Nest” – a modern take on the self-propelled merry-go-rounds of yore. In the summertime, one area of the playground transforms into a mini-water park with a fountain and misters guaranteed to cool down even the sweatiest visitor. Native shade trees and wooden benches also offer an escape from the city heat.
Nearest Subway: N, R; 4,5,6; L to 14th St./Union Square
This Central Park playground at 7th Avenue and Central Park South is the city’s grand dame. Opened in 1926 and completely refurbished in 2006, Heckscher is also the oldest and largest (1.8 acres) in Central Park. While for years Heckscher was accessed through a modest chain-link fence, during the playground’s renovation the Heckscher Building at the playground’s southern edge was restored, and now its original central breezeway once again serves as the park’s main entrance. Once inside you will find a seemingly endless sandbox, swings and seesaws. A giant rock for climbing invites the greater outside park into the playground; once at its peak, children are rewarded with terrific views of Central Park South. Sturdy brick walls and a labyrinthine complex of bridges, moats and tunnels surround a giant climbing pyramid. In the warmer months water floods the walkways of the pyramid running down toward the ground and eventually decanting into a waterfall; at is base, fountains shoot high into the air. There is open space for games of kickball and Frisbee, another luxury in a cramped city.
Nearest Subway: A; B, C, D to 59th St./Columbus Circle
Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn has become more and more family-friendly in the last decade, and that is most evident in the ambitious Brooklyn Bridge Park lining the East River. The 1.6-acre Pier 6, which was one of the first segments of Brooklyn Bridge Park to open to the public in 2010, is truly a child’s wonderland. The playground includes four distinct play areas, each tucked away in its own little pocket: Swing Valley, Slide Mountain, Sandbox Village and the wildly popular Water Lab. In Slide Mountain you’ll find two tall slides organically embedded in a rock wall that must be scaled in order to reach them, while the third, enclosed slide can only be accessed after an interior climb to the top of structure resembling a wooden rocket ship. Sandbox Village is just that—the biggest sandbox you’ve ever seen, complete with miniature wooden houses and vehicles, as well as a few fountains so your kid can get that cement mixture mixed just about perfectly. In Swing Valley, you’ll find garden variety baby swings right alongside discs suspended on sturdy ropes that demand a little more from a rider than your average pump n’ push. Finally, the Water Lab makes every child’s dream of water play a reality, with interactive buckets, levers, and dams, a rock valley for climbing, shooting fountains and a peaceful creek to wade in. Bring cups, buckets and sunscreen to maximize your time here.
Nearest Subway: 4, 5 to Borough Hall; N, R to Court St.
Vanderbilt Street Playground
Moving inland, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has seven unique playgrounds, all scattered around the Park’s perimeter. Our pick is the Vanderbilt Street Playground, located at Prospect Park Southwest and Vanderbilt St. in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood. Completely refurbished in 2010, this is Prospect Park’s newest playground, and it shows in the engaging and innovative design. In addition to its inventive climbing structures for toddlers and older children the park has an exciting water function complete with sprinklers, troughs, spinners and an in-ground canal. There is also a rock waterfall in the toddler section that’s the perfect size for the little ones. Shaded wooden seating areas give grown-ups a place to relax as they watch the younger set run wild in the park’s generous open spaces. Another bonus? Just outside the playground you’ll find grassy, shaded areas where you can picnic while enjoying a refreshing view of the Prospect Park Lake.
Nearest Subway: F to Fort Hamilton Parkway
Gantry Plaza State Park Playground
Cross the river to Queens to visit Gantry Plaza State Park Playground, the result of an award-winning design by architect Thomas Balsley, which shows in the thoughtful landscaping of this slice of Long Island City’s waterfront. Tucked at the base of the landmark Pepsi-Cola sign, wood and metal walkways surround this brightly colored playground. With the Manhattan skyline (including imposing views of the Empire State Building and the United Nations) as its backdrop, this playground manages to be both whimsical and modern, with a spider web climbing structure and a ship-themed feature, both the stuff of hours of imaginative play. This is one of the most colorful playgrounds in the city as well, with bold flooring in bright blue, yellow, green and red running through the park (it’s also shock-absorbent to keep the kids safe). Being right on the waterfront, the playground did sustain damage during Hurricane Sandy. The majority of the activities are up and running, but the extensive water play area is still under construction.
Nearest Subway: 7 to Vernon Blvd.
Francis Lewis Park Playground
Until recently, Francis Lewis Park Playground in Flushing, Queens was a fairly unremarkable playground with pre-fab equipment tucked away in the popular Francis Lewis Park. After Hurricane Sandy, however, the playground received a total overhaul, and reopened to the public in May 2013 with all new features. Indeed, the new playground bears little resemblance to its decaying forebear, and is now one of the main draws of Francis Lewis Park (which also includes handball, basketball and bocce courts), at least for the younger set. The new playground has a sensory play area with drums, speaking tubes and telescopes, as well as a playful sprinkler system and a climbing boulder, all connected by meandering paths that spark the imagination and a child’s sense of adventure. What’s more, the playground, like the rest of the park, has stunning close-up views of the Whitestone Bridge, complete with lookout binoculars for the kids to enjoy it. Bring a picnic and enjoy the park’s green space after you’re all played out.
Nearest Subway/Bus: 6 to Parkchester Ave.; Q44 Bus to Parsons Blvd./Center Dr.
The Bronx’s Printer’s Park sits on land that was once the estate of 19th-century printing titan Richard March Hoe in the borough’s Longwood neighborhood. After falling into some disrepair, the park underwent a phased renovation throughout the 2000s. The southern portion of the park, including the playground, was reconstructed in 2009, and this unique playground’s structures are modeled after the design of the rotary printing press in homage to the park’s history. The climbing structure features graduated steps that mimic the cylinders of the press and a serpentine pathway running through the park evokes the continuous roll of paper that was fed through the press. The park also features green design elements such as the use of recycled materials and plantings that can thrive on the runoff from the water featured in the park’s sprinkler and spray elements, guaranteed to provide cool refreshment on a hot summer’s day.
Nearest Subway: 2; 5 to Simpson St.
Most NYC playgrounds are open from 8am to dusk, year round. The majority of New York City playgrounds are accessible for all children, but the City does rank playgrounds according to accessibility/special features for children with special needs. Check out the New York City Parks Department website (www.nycgovparks.org/facilities/playgrounds) for detailed information and categorization of all NYC playgrounds.