clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

10 Modern NYC Playgrounds Made for Design Lovers (and Kids)

New, 4 comments

Playgrounds just aren't like they used to be. The inauguration for New York's first playground, Seward Park on the Lower East Side, was nothing short of apocalyptic. Twenty thousand children held Manhattan's first playscape hostage, Jacob Riis had to go home early, and two hundred police officers were brought to their knees. 700 playgrounds later, each decade has gifted New York with a wildly different philosophy towards play. Of course, the aughts are no different. With acclaimed architect David Rockwell as its standard-bearer, we've ushered in an entirely new age of play. Long gone are concrete flooring and mile-high fences. Culled from the last 15 years, we've assembled 10 of the best pint-sized play spaces in New York City sure to please design-loving parents—oh and their kids, too. So, please, judge away. And if we've forgotten any, do let us know.

These 10 playgrounds are a far cry from New York's very first experiment. A softer and gentler breed, they are chock full of soundscapes, cascading water jets, and things that you can pick up, move around, and build with. Each one borrows from the wildly imaginative (note: also wildly dangerous) concrete-clad mid-century playgrounds, while taking heed of the litigious playgrounds of the early nineties. Like Richard Dattner's adventure playground, their knee jerk reaction isn't to shy away from scrapes and bruises. Instead, they resist the urge to coat each hard edge in vast swathes of veritable bubble wrap.

At their best, they are machines for decision making and, at their worst, a nice place to spend an hour or two.

Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area, Brooklyn, 2013
The Skinny: Let's be honest, sometimes natural playgrounds are a load of baloney. Throw a few rocks in there, fashion a hole in a downturned tree, arrange three stumps into a listening circle. And there you have it: a tax break. This isn't like that. Orchestrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Prospect Park spryly took advantage of a one-shot situation by utilizing the, otherwise treacherous, casualties. Fallen branches became monkey bars, torn asunder trees became benches, tree rings became ancient hieroglyphs, and a bevy of loose branches became building blocks.

East 110th Street Playground, Harlem, 2013
The Skinny: After ten months of rebuilding, this newfangled playground is ready for your judgement. The park, aptly designed in the shape of an infinity symbol, sports button-activated water jets, a custom-designed wooden playscape that's a fitting tribute to the site's former monkey bars, and verdant buffer of foliage.

Imagination Playground, Financial District, 2010
The Skinny: When asked, David Rockwell will usually admit that his recent foray into architectural play was triggered by fatherhood. With two doe-eyed whipper snappers in hand, it didn't take long for him that realize that New York's playgrounds, with all their bells and whistles, overly emphasized fine motor skills. He argued that true play required one singular motion: picking up an object and putting it next to another object. Five years ago in Manhattan's South Seaport, Imagination Playground debuted with a downright puritanical approach to materiality. According to Rockwell, all it needed was 350 interlocking foam pieces, water, and sand. So far, the playground has been a booming success. It's next stop? Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Teardrop Park, Financial District, 2010
The Skinny: Nestled into Battery Park City, this diminutive spot is only one-440th of Central Park, but seems to create space from midair. Craggy brooks descend into sinuous steel slides and land in stone outcroppings overlooking a kingdom. James Gill, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, told the New York Times that the space, "Looks like it will be here to the end of the world."

Pier 6, Brooklyn Bridge Park, 2010
The Skinny: If we had to nominate one park for "run around in circles; go home because you threw up," it would have to be Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by the park's master planner Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates with input from North Carolina State University's Natural Learning Initiative. A veritable Shangri-La for toddlers, the $55 million park boasts an endless array of wacky amenities: a 6,000-square-foot Sandbox Village, a perilous thirteen-foot slide mountain, a Jumanji-esque swing valley, a "water lab," a moat, and a ferry to Governors Island, where more temporary follies likely await. An honorable mention goes to Pier 2, a fitness arcadia that borders on play.

Printer's Park, South Bronx, 2010
The Skinny: You may have missed Printers Park's debut, a compact gizmo tucked away in the South Bronx, as it opened at the same time as David Rockwell's Imagination Playground. Situated on the former home of rotary printing press inventor Richard March Hoe, the playground evokes the form of his novel invention. It might not be one of the more forward thinking playgrounds of 2010, but recycled materials and a beguiling concept make it worthy of our list.

Evelyn's Playground, Union Square, 2009
The Skinny: Trudge past the Forever 21, scorn the masses of jugglers and NYU students alike, and there you'll find it: Union Square's newly renovated playground. Boasting a hefty $3.8 million price tag and a laundry list of amenities (a talking tube, a tunnel hewn from boulders, a wee little forest), this playground is ready to be overtaken by strollers.

Mullaly South Playground, The Bronx, 2009
The Skinny: The dulcet tone emanating from Mullaly South Playground, which opened two years ago, are like no other in the city. Outfitted with slaps pipes, listening dishes, and giant wind chimes that manipulate, stretch, and multiply sound, this park is poised to train a legion of pint-sized composers.

Tom Otterness' Playground, Midtown West, 2009
The Skinny: Perched unto the corner of West 42nd street, you'll find Tom Otterness' gentle giant and, most likely, a few children hanging from his gangly bronze limbs. After a year's stay in Hell's Kitchen, the sculpture absconded to Silver Towers, where it currently resides. In case you need more whimsy in your life, his bronze minions also reside in 14th Street subway.

New York Hall of Science Kidpower! Playground, Queens, 1996, Honorable Mention
The Skinny: Rising from the Brutalist remains of the 1964 world fair, this Seussian playground encapsulates that same spirit: undulating, twisting, and purely self-contained within 30,000 square-feet. The hyper-whimsical architecture—seesaws that demonstrate momentum, looming climbable spider webs, and a single steel disc with a never-ending orbit—allows children to navigate an otherworldly, saccharine landscape. Although it was built in 1996, we're including it by virtue of the fact that it was so ahead of its time.
· State of Play [The New Yorker]
· Can A Playground Be Too Safe [The New York Times]
· All Playground Posts [Curbed NY]