Thursday, December 10, 2009

Newish arrival in Fairmount: Eastern State Playpen

Playground: Eastern State Playpen
Location: NW corner of Eastern State Penitentiary, corner of 22nd and Brown (gate on Brown, but only a low wall around the site)
Date visited: 12/10/09

Equipment: One zone, with one sprawling playset composed of a single (nice, plastic) slide, several unusual types of ladders, a large fake rock climbing portion (that can be reached from the slide platform, but also scaled vertically at various degrees of difficulty), and a good-sized "jungle gym" in the style of a tangly rope spiderweb (similar in feel to the much larger one at Smith Playhouse). Also a modern teeter-totter analogue (may need to be standing to use it), a sit-and-spin toy, and some play table space under the playset. A freestanding picnic umbrella must offer some shade to infants accompanying their siblings in warm weather. No swings!
material: modern resin & metal, plus rocks and ropes; scale: small
Ages: Playground posted as ages 2-12, which isn't far off
Surface: rubbery composite
Shade(0-3): 1* (see above)
Water: Y
Other: extensive grassy strip along the northern edge of the penitentiary.
Access: Officially posted as dawn to dusk

Impressions: Clearly a recent addition to the neighborhood, this playground does magic in a small space. Obviously there aren't a large number of pieces, but the equipment that there is does a remarkable job of presenting fun and creative options for many ages -- it actually comes close to covering the range that it aimed for, where most playgrounds end up challenging only the youngest visitors. Our 21-month-old loved the slide, was intrigued by the climbing rocks (but for the striking cold on the day of our visit, she would have attempted them, so parents of risk-takers should be prepared), and watched the bigger kids on the rope tangle for a while; we'll definitely visit again when her reach is a bit longer. The ropes and rocks mean that there are challenges even for haughty middleschoolers, while the easier steps to the slide, narrow tunnel through the rocks, and low play area (as well as the peripheral gizmos) offer plenty to the younger set, so this spot seems like a boon to families with a range of ages. The lack of swings is a bit of a bummer (and seems odd, given that there's plenty of real estate to the east that could have accommodated a set), but the presence of a drinking fountain is a pleasant rarity. A playground sign notes that the site gets lots of after-school traffic, so parents of smaller kids may want to avoid those times. Otherwise, a fun change of pace; great for combining with a tourist trip to the historic Penitentiary or with lunch at Jack's Fireouse!
Overall rating: 8+

Update 4/10: see first comment below: the "shade umbrella" is a water feature! spiff.
Update 7/11: it's actually a mister, that triggers when you push a button. great for a hot day, and no suits required!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

This neighborhood deserves more: Tip Top playground

Playground: Tip Top
Location: Front & Allen -- entrances on E & W sides
Date visited: 11/28/09

Equipment: Two playsets:
  • Smaller has a single platform with several ladders and one (boring) metal slide
  • Larger has a couple platforms, quite high (too high to lift a kid up to!) with lots of climbing options, a fireman's pole, and a long metal slide.
There is also a set of swings nearby, with two each strap and bucket swings.
material: modern resin + metal, worn and graffittied; scale: large space, with play equipment at one end
Ages: 2-8
Surface: rubbery around equipment; blacktop elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 0
Water: N
Other: Lots of additional blacktop space, one portion enclosed in high fence.
Access: Unmarked -- dawn to dusk?

Impressions: While the actual play equipment here was basically fine for a range of ages (if a bit weathered), the combination of a large expanse of unstructured blacktop and the proximity to the highway and SEPTA train bridges make this feel like the middle of nowhere. In fact, there are a number of decent townhouses nearby (on the W & N sides), and the snazzy new Piazza development (*) is about a block away, so somebody should be creating pressure for better development of this lot. At the very least, some of the random blacktop could be made into basketball courts; the addition of some grassy area and a few picnic tables could really turn it into a community presence. Heck, they could even capitalize on the spectacle of the passing commuter trains by throwing in some kind of train-themed climbing or riding equipment (promotional funds, anyone?), just to give it some kind of unique personality. As it is, visitors sort of have to bring their own fun.
Overall rating: 6+

Nice for the smaller set: Northern Liberties Rec. Center

Playground: Northern Liberties Rec. Center
Location: On 3rd, just N. of Fairmount (W. side)
Date visited: 11/28/09

Equipment: One playset (modern resin & metal), including a straight metal slide, curved plastic slide, solid bridge, and several sorts of stairs and ladders. Two bucket swings nearby.
Ages: 1-5ish
Surface: rubbery under equipment, blacktop elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 1
Water: Y
Other: basketball court (torn nets, but end of season); pool on other side of fence (entered through rec. center).
Access: Nothing posted; playground was open when rec. center was closed. Basketball courts had lights on poles, one of which was aimed back toward the playground, so could be open later than usual "dawn to dusk" default...

Impressions: Cute little playground for tots and smaller kids, sandwiched beween the Northern Liberties Rec. Center (closed at our visit), the new Community Center, and other local homes and restaurants. Neighborhoody feel. Decent equipment, creative and in good shape, but nothing for school-age kids once the water sprayer (which claims about 1/4 of the total area) is off. Couldn't judge normal traffic, as we visited during a holiday weekend, but it certainly wouldn't take too many kids to fill the place up...
Overall rating: 7

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Climbing ribbon! (and it's called Chew!)

Playground: Chew
Location: 19th and Ellsworth (enter on Ellsworth)
Date visited: 11/25/09

Equipment: Nice small-tot set of equipment (4 sets of steps, 1 ladder, 2 slides, bridge, "lunch counter" underneath), 4 bucket swing, 4 strap swings, Decent but not-so-extensive equipment for older kids (3 ladders, 1 slide, quarter-barrel to climb up, monkey-bar rotating circles), Very cool "climbing ribbon" -- climbing wall in the shape of a quite twisty ribbon and very tall (maybe 10 feet tall?)
Ages: small-tot to 8ish, though climbing ribbon seems good for even up to high school
Surface: rubberized play surface
Shade(0-3): 0
Water: none
Other: baseball field (crummy looking), batting cage, pool, rec center
Access: rec center is open M-F 1-9:30; unknown if gate to playground is open at other times

Impressions: Main equipment is pretty nice and in decent shape, right about average in terms of size and variety. Climbing ribbon is quite cool, though probably only usable for older kids (maybe 5-year-olds with supervision?). Restricted hours also a significant downside. Unfortunate view of Washington Avenue (though a block away), but overall setting is fairly nice.
Overall rating: 7

Perfectly nice, but more average than its namesake

Playground: Marian Anderson
Location: 17th & Fitzwater (enter on 17th)
Date visited: 11/24/09

Equipment: Minimal small-tot set of equipment (steps, 2 ladders, 2 slides), teeter-totter, 4 bucket swings, 4 strap swings, Good older-kid set of equipment (5 ladders, 4 slides, poles, bridge, monkey bars), Cool "spaceship" -- 4-foot high pod that can be climbed into from a pair of parallel short ladders
Ages: toddler to 7ish
Surface: rubberized surfaces for each play area
Shade(0-3): 1 -- some trees are the periphery, and the outfield wall may provide a little
Water: none
Other: large & nice baseball field (playground is just over outfield fence), batting cage, pool, rec center
Access: Rec center hours are M-F 1-10 PM, Sat 9-5. There is a small gate on 17th that was open when visited (despite rec center being closed) -- not sure if that's a common occurrence

Impressions: Particularly nice amount of space, with good separation between the various play zones and several benches around. Even relatively scenic between the baseball field, rec center murals, and relatively quiet streets around. Equipment is fairly average (and scant for younger kids) but in decent shape. Rec Center is not particularly welcoming (no posted hours), but then that seems to be the way Philly rec centers are, and is not really the fault of the playground (though it does make it unpredictable whether you can access the playground outside of the official rec center hours, not to mention being able to find out what those hours are...)
Overall rating: 7

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Running and climbing, free from cars: Penn's central square

Playground: Levy Park on the U.Penn. campus
Location: follow the walkway SW from 34th & Walnut, or North (then E) from 36th and Spruce
Date visited: several times in summer/fall 2009

Equipment: Paved walkways, grassy areas, a large button sculpture that can be clambered on, a flight of sub-standard-size steps, and grassy hills of various steepness.
Ages: 1-3
Surface: Grass, stone, pavement.
Shade(0-3): 2
Water: N
Other: People-watching, benches, occasional events.
Access: college campus green, with expected flows of traffic and occasional events.

Impressions: A great change of pace for new walkers and other explorers -- this campus expanse offers grassy areas good for lounging, picnicking, or playing, as well as walkways in many directions, all of which is well buffered from automobile traffic. Additional great toddler features include the famous Button sculpture, which is irresitable to young climbers (who can drop down through the holes), and a flight of shortish steps (look to your left when facing the button and library) that make for great practice stairs -- my 18-21-month old and I average 6-8 trips up and down per visit. She also loves running down the grassy hill at the end of her more serious work... Downsides include large numbers of pedestrians, depending on the time of day, and occasional tents or other activities that take over the prime real estate here. Upsides include numerous restaurants and coffee shops in the vicinity (especially along Walnut and Sansom). For those with kids who love buses as much as mine does, this plaza also makes a great cross-town destination; catch the 42 or 21 on Walnut (get off at 34th) or the 40 along Lombard (get off on Spruce after it returns from its detour) for a pleasant outing.
Overall rating: 9 (for toddlers only)

A tiny playspace: 10th & Mt. Vernon

Playground: "10th & Lemon" (rec center?)
Location: In the middle of the block just W of 10th, gates on Mt. Vernon and Lemon (a tiny street)
Date visited: 11/18/09

Equipment: Two zones separated by a low stone wall (fun to walk along):
  • The tot zone has a very low playset with a single plastic slide and a chain of monkey bars. One plus was an unusual climbing structure like the outside of a barrel (effect between a climbing wall and a ladder). Also two bucket swings in this zone.
  • Not really a full zone; a set of higher strap swings is accompanied by a single tall slide, maybe 15 feet tall, a free-standing nerve-challenger with a spiral metal descent.
Outside the seeming boundaries of the playground (on the N side) was a very cute shallow pool for water play, complete with colorful animals that must spray (a seal, duck, whale, and frog). This was, of course, turned off in November.

Material: modern resin and metal, a bit worn; scale: small.
Ages: toddler and brave older kids
Surface: rubbery around equipment, concrete elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 1
Water: Y
Other: Paved area, stone chess table, broken-down basketball court.
Access: dawn-dusk? (no gates)

Impressions: Tucked inside a small block, this playground would be easy to miss -- apparently for the city too. The basketball court is embarrassing to see, although the water pool and nearby murals are cheery. The play equipment was ok, but only for the littlest kids (our 21-month-old was not engaged by the playset, and not old/nervy enough for the big slide). No idea whether it gets much play; during our visit on a sunny fall afternoon, we had the place to ourselves.
Overall rating: 4

An abandoned playzone: East Poplar playground

Playground: East Poplar
Location: On 8th Street, W side, between Poplar and Brown (closer to Brown) -- entrances on 8th and from under train bridge (W)
Date visited: 11/18/09

Equipment: Three loose zones:
  • One would be good for crawlers and small tots -- it involves two low cement climbing turtles and an abstract sculptural element in-between. The turtles appear to be water elements/squirters, but the presence of a climbing object between them may mean that they're no longer functional. (There was nobody around to ask.)
  • A small kids zone has two slides, some climbing equipment, and a stretch of monkey bars. There is also a bar for swings, but with nothing hanging there.
  • An area for slightly larger kids has two structures: (a) a two-level playset with a wide metal slide at each height and some monkey bars, and (b) an intriguing pair of "lookout towers" that could each be climbed via an internal "submarine-style" ladder; however, the (tunnel) walkway connecting them is missing, leaving an alarming gap. There's also a stand for 4 swings in this area, but there aren't even chains hanging there.
material: modern "resin and metal" style, but very worn, with cracked coatings; scale: medium space.
Ages: 1-5?
Surface: rubbery uner equipment, blacktop elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 1
Water: ?
Other: pool, basketball courts, tennis courts, picnic tables, a large grassy area, rec. center
Access: dawn to dusk? (no gates)

Impressions: Lots of color here, but desperately needs some love in terms of both upkeep and variety -- our 21-month-old was barely challenged by the "bigger kids" equipment (although she loved the taller slide). The complete lack of swings is really a sin -- feels like a concession of defeat. It may be that this location is a little outside of any particular neighborhood (it's between the train bridge and an Orthodox church, with houses a block or two away), such that there's nobody to advocate for this playground and demand reasonable upkeep, but surely the area could use better options.
Overall rating: 3

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Parts West: A Playground in Mantua

Playground: 39th & Olive playground
Location: On 39th at Olive (just north of Fairmount), entrances on 39th
Date visited: 11/15/09

Equipment: Two main zones, separated by a partial fence:
  • Younger kids' section has 3 "hobby horse" sort of riding toys on springs, 4 bucket swings, and one playset with numerous ladders, a solid bridge, and two rather simple (metal) slides.
  • Older kids' area has lots of climbing options, to various heights of the main playset, which also has a crawl tunnel, fireman's pole, and 4 total (metal) slides including a high straight and a steep spiral one. Also 6 strap swings and a free-standing additional climbing structure in this area. Nearby are a pair of stone seals that must provide overlapping sprays of water in summertime.
material: modern resin, but weathered, with metal slides; scale: large space
Ages: 1-10?
Surface: rubbery around equipment, asphalt elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 0
Water: Y
Other: Swimming pool, basketball courts (3, with bleachers), open blacktop areas, small rec. center, nearby park-like area with benches and gravel/clay, grass, and woodchip-covered areas.
Access: 6AM - 10PM

Impressions: Nice mix of equipment would serve a range of ages and activities. However, the hilly terrain, while fun for a new walker, also attracts lots of skateboarders and bladers (the only other users during our visit, probable ages 6-10), which could be tricky when busy, especially in the tot area. Also, there appeared to be quite a bit of broken glass, both new (a couple of smashed bottles) and old (tiny shards imbedded in the play surface). The effect of several cheerful murals is undermined by a lot of Sharpie graffitti on unpainted parts of the equipment -- something of a reflection of the depressed state of the neighborhood.
Overall rating: 6

Monday, November 9, 2009

New site resource: Map of known playgrounds

Our fall has been horrible with some home contracting work and other distractions, so haven't been adding reviews here as fast as we'd like to. Meantime, are developing a really important resource: a map of all the playgrounds that we've been able to identify, whether from the Recreation Department website, other parents' recommendations, or our own reconaissance, whether or not we've visited them yet. (The version below is a small window onto the whole.) Have put "thought-bubble" markers on reviewed playgrounds, with links to our reviews, and marked all the rest (not quite complete as of posting, but soon) with small black icons, so that you can at least see what options might exist near you or near someplace you're headed. Will also get a link to this built into the blog header/sidebar in the next few days. Hope this is helpful!

View playgrounds in a larger map

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fringes of Fairmount: Francisville Rec. Center playground

Playground: Francisville
Location: officially 1750 Wiley, close to 19th and Brown -- fills whole irregular city block (enter on W or E sides; many gates)
Date visited: 10/3/09

Equipment: Two zones, widely separated:
  • Tiny tot zone has a quite low playset with several types of climbing access but only one (metal) slide, two bucket swings nearby. A little ways off, near the entrance, is a cute old train-shaped climbing bar apparatus.
  • Older kid zone (fenced) has a larger playset with two levels, one having two shorter (plastic) slides with bumps and turns and various types of ladders, and the other having a single higher (metal) straight slide (and taller ladders). A solid arched bridge connects the two. Also strap swings nearby and an old-fashioned free-standing metal slide (7 feet tall?).
material: modern resin, somewhat weathered; scale: large
Ages: 1-7?
Surface: rubbery around equipment, blacktop elswhere (or grass)
Shade(0-3): 1
Water: Y (angled spray? off at visit)
Other: rec. center, pool, basketball courts, ball fields, extra blacktop and grassy areas
Access: dawn to dusk?

Impressions: Extensive playground and recreation center fills a block at the boundary between nicely tended rowhouses and abandoned lots; a number of cheery murals attest to the neighborhood's determination to come out on top. Lots of parking is available all around. The playground is also large and inviting, and everything is in good condition, although the playsets look weathered and there are big divots in the composite surface under the swings. The equipment, however, is a little uninspiring in practice, being a bit too reliant on ladder permutations at the expense of other types of play. Overall, a good neighborhood resource, but not a cross-town attractor.
Overall rating: 6

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cheesesteak Central: Capitolo Playground

Playground: Capitolo
Location: 900 Federal St (South Philadelphia)
Date visited: Sep. 22, 2009

Equipment: 2 sets of apparatus, one for toddlers (climbable even for crawlers, two slides, longish bridge with 90-degree turn) and one for slightly older kids (several slides including a one spiral and one with moguls, and several climbing access points). 8 swings (4 bucket and 4 strap). 1 sprinkler. 2 riding-animals on springs
Ages: toddlers, maybe up to early elementary age?
Surface: rubberized around the aparatus, sidewalk elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 2 (fair collection of small trees around the whole area)
Water: Y -- one tall-ish sprinker (not operating when visited)
Other: extensive rec. center facilities, with fields and courts, etc.
Access: several blocks south of Washington Ave. on 9th St, also close to 47 bus line

Impressions: Playground is fairly big and a part of a block-sized recreational complex including a large baseball field and a community center. Oh, and did I mention that it's DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET FROM GENO'S STEAKS? It's quite an odd experience sitting in a playground with an intense odor of cheesesteaks surrounding you. Apart from that, it's quite a nice environment. The main equipment itself is fairly standard and a bit underwhelming for older kids, but everything is in decent shape, there are ample swings, and even a few small extras (ride-on animals, sprinkler). Plus, you're a block from a cute cafe at 8th and Wharton (shameless plug).
Overall rating: 6

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Not a playground, but magic to new walkers: Jefferson's Lubert Plaza

Playground: Jefferson Hospital's Lubert Plaza
Location: 10th and Locust (not fenced)
Date visited: several times in summer '09

Equipment: open plaza (almost 1.5 acres), steps of various heights, fountain: This is designed as a multipurpose plaza with cement/stone circular center and alternating bands of grass and stone. Steps around the plaza ramp gradually from milimeters to full step height.
Ages: 1-2
Surface: grass or pavement/stone
Shade(0-3): 0
Water: N
Other: grassy areas and stone benches
Access: open plaza, subject to occasional events (no idea of night policy)

Impressions: This public plaza that Jefferson built as part of its impressive new Hamilton Building's site is a boon for new walkers. I set down my 16-month-old, expecting her to race around the open space, but instead I discovered that it was the perfect "gym" for her driving desire to walk on changing surfaces and especially up and down small steps. The sweeping ramp-like walkways offer a range of step height, from tiny lip to full stairstep, so there's something for any toddler to successfully navigate solo. Plus, the small fountain on the east side, with its playful bronze otters, is a big hit. Too hot on sunny summer days, but otherwise an unexpected favorite!
Overall rating: 9* (new walkers only)

A challenge for older kids: McCall School playground

Playground: McCall School
Location: 7th St. between Pine and Spruce
Date visited: 9/9/09

Equipment: 1 playset + a couple of extra pieces. Several types of climbing, 3 slides, solid and jointed bridges. Also a 6-foot set of vertical climbing walls, some modified teeter-totter equivalents, and a play "service window" under the playset.
material: modern resin and metal, climbing wall hard plastic; scale: med-large
Ages: 3-middle school?
Surface: composite tiles around equipment, tarmac elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 0
Water: N
Other: School yard includes low basketball, wall for hitting tennis balls, and painted zones for hopscotch, 4-square, etc.
Access: ? after school hours, at least

Impressions: I never thought that this play yard would be open to the public until I walked by it one late afternoon and it was -- no idea what their official hours/policies are, but the existence of posted rules indicates that they anticipate at least some non-school use. This was, however, the first playground at which I felt all the equipment was too tricky for our 18-month-old -- the jointed bridge had wide planks and big gaps, the slides were steep, etc. (She did enjoy the crawl-through holes in the climbing wall, as well as the slight give in the solid bridge, but we got rained out of testing our limits more than that.) This makes sense, since McCall serves kids K-8th grade. Nice for kids of the right age, if you can avoid a hot sunny day; the climbing walls especially seem fierce, but fun.
Overall rating: 8

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A historic site + highway: Shot Tower tot lot

Playground: Shot Tower
Location: Front and Carpenter (gate on Carpenter)
Date visited: 9/5/09

Equipment: Two playsets, not particularly separated:
  • smaller has 3 slides, some climbing stuff
  • larger has 2 slides, a straight bridge (with no real bars!), and curvy monkey/horizontal bars
Also strap and bucket (2) swings nearby.
material: modern resin and metal, a little weathered, some metal slides; scale: medium
Ages: 0-8
Surface: rubbery composite under play equipment, concrete elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 1 (some on smaller set + swings)
Water: Y*
Other: grassy (ball) field adjacent -- marked for kids 12 and under only -- benches, rec center
Access: closes at dusk, but gate has some specific hours that may or may not match that. (forgot to write them down!)

Impressions: Serviceable but uninspired play equipment (although one set of the smaller slides were quite fun), against the background din of I-95 across the street (overhead). A single water sprayer in a round pool is tucked back by the far end of the rec center, where it would be easy to miss, as are two wooden picnic tables. Probably a great resource for the neighborhood of rowhouses and newer highrises -- certainly somebody lovingly maintains a number of cheerful planters full of flowers -- but nothing one would go out of the way for. Plus: on other side of the highway underpass is a historic church with an extensive grassy churchyard that would make a nice picnic site. (They appear to have a daycare or preschool, which might generate some business for the Shot Tower park.)
Overall rating: 6

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The eye of the storm: Von Colln playground

Playground: Von Colln
Location: 23rd & Franklin Parkway (easiest to enter from Pennsylvania Avenue, but unfenced...)
Date visited: 8/30/09

Equipment: one playset, including four slides and one solid bridge, a variety of climbing stuff and monkey bars, and some zones underneath for playing hot dog stand, etc. Sets of bucket and strap swings nearby.
material: modern resin and metal; scale: medium-small space.
Ages: toddler through elementary age
Surface: rubbery composite under equipment, dirt elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 3 (lots of big old trees)
Water: N
Other: picnic tables, ball fields, extensive (sunny) grassy space, small rec. center
Access: dawn-dusk (no fence)

Impressions: This very shady playround feels friendly and neighborhoody despite its location close to the base of the Art Museum, with accompanying swirl of traffic. Great for a hot day or with a picnic in hand, and attracts a nice variety of users, but not huge or offering much for the smallest or older kids. Pluses: its small playset is more creative and interesting than many larger ones, and the banks of swings make you feel part of a group gathering. Minus: the challenge of parking anywhere close, or the amount of busy traffic that must be navigated to get here from the nearby neighborhoods. Overall, wouldn't drive across town for this one, but it's a nice resource for the neighborhood and more tucked away than would seem possible at this location.
Overall rating: 7

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Colorful but exposed: Palumbo playground

Playground: Palumbo
Location:10th & Fitzwater (usually enter through the rec center on 10th, but sometimes the gate on Fitzwater is open too)
Date visited: 8/26/09

Equipment: Two different structures in close proximity, one labelled "2-5" with stairs, a solid bridge, and two slides, the other labelled "5-8" has taller sections, longer slides (including a twisty one), and climbing bars. There are also two sets of swings (bucket and strap) and a spinning seat.
material: modern resin, but with metal slides; scale: small fenced space
Ages: 1-6?
Surface: spongy composite, but cut into tiles that are separating a bit
Shade(0-3): 0 (a little in late afternoon)
Water: N
Other: playing fields (softball? soccer?) nearby, rec center, bathrooms
Access: 1:30 - 10p in summer (the rec center is definitely closed in the mornings year 'round)

Impressions: The equipment here is colorful and enticing, and has some creative elements -- our toddler enjoys playing there. However, it feels really exposed to the sun in summer months, which means everybody and everything gets hot fast, and the space is tight enough that it can't handle a horde. Also, the hours are restricted and variable by season, although some daycare groups appear to have it figured out. On the plus side, the delightful Morning Glory Cafe is right across the street, which makes it well placed as a combination with late lunch.
Overall rating: 7

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More stuff than a kid can take in: Smith playground

Playground: Smith Kids Playplace
Location: (see website) Fairmount Park, off Kelly Drive (north of the zoo)
Date visited: 8/23/09

Equipment: Several zones, divided by age and type of play:
  • Tot lot (0-5), just reopened after a major renovation, has playhouses, a train, firetruck, large pirate ship to climb and slide down from, rocking horses (et al) on springs, an enclosed (with ropes) merry-go-rounds, low animals that are xylophones, a crawler/toddler playhouse/maze, bucket and strap (and recliner) swings, cup seat spinners, and fiberglass climbing rocks. It's all brand new, made of coated wood or plastic.
  • Several medium age zones (one up front, one in the back) with adventure-style rubber and metal things to climb and spin on (and a larger version of the merry-go-round) as well as various modern teeter-totter equivalents and a rubbery balance beam.
  • A gigantic (easily 50 feet across) suspended mesh of climbing ropes with a platform or trampoline in its center.
  • Zone of swings including bucket and strap styles, but also horizontal tire swings and soft platform swings that could hold several kids or one star-gazer.
material: as described above; scale: huge with several zones
Ages: 0-10 (enforced, or I'd say middle school)
Surface: rubbery composite, very cushy
Shade(0-3): 1 (but lots of new trees)
Water: N
Other: Indoor playhouse for kids up to 5 years old (not visited this time), bathrooms with changing tables (in both), covered large wooden slide with burlap sacks for sliding down (not too huge for toddlers), extensive shaded grassy areas
Access: 10-7 on peak summer weekends; 10-4 most of the spring and fall (see website for specifics); closed Mondays and in the winter

Impressions: This place is to most playgrounds what Disney Land is to a local carnival. There is just So Much More. Our todller ran around in the tot lot with some mix of joy and overwhelmedness at the options. Lots of kids on a hot summer day (all shapes, colors, and sizes) but felt like hardly any. Lots of trees (and backing woods) make it feel like you're far from civilization, although it will be a while before the newer trees get large enough to shade the renovated play areas. Note that there are no trashcans in the playgrounds, so you are expected to "pack out" any snack remnants and other detritus (and actually consume food in restricted areas); also no cellphone use is allowed (to keep your attention on your young charges).
Overall rating: 10

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Waves of happy kids: Herron Park sprayground

Playground: Herron
Location: 2nd & Reed (entrance on Reed)
Date visited: 8/17/09

Equipment: Two totally different areas, one playground, one water/spray park:
  • Water is what brings the most visitors, at least in summer. There are 4-5 different (cement-paved) subzones, in which sets of sprayers either spout from the pavement, pour down from atop poles, or arc across the space. Some produce a lot of volume, and are thus better for bigger kids, but even toddlers and crawlers will find something in the smaller areas with subdued spouts.
  • About a third of the space is a modern cutting-edge adventure-style playground, with lots of things to climb, spin, ride skateboards on rails, and some cool-looking electronic game I didn't figure out. Also one spring-based teeter-totter and two sizeable fibreglass climbing rocks.
type: metal, rope, and rubber; sacle: medium area with several zones
Ages: just about any age for the sprayground, but the play equipment doesn't offer much for toddlers; see below
Surface: Cement in water area, "woodchip-style" rubbery composite in playground areas; also some grass and garden plantings.
Shade(0-3): 0 (but lots of new trees means this could change in a few years)
Water: Y!
Other: bathrooms, basketball courts (with a seasonal soccer league?), tables with benches and awnings
Access: dawn to dusk (+ see comment below post)

Impressions: This recently created sprayground is enough to fulfill the fantasies of anybody who's ever chased a lawn sprinker. Sets of sprays cycle on and off, keeping the kids racing from zone to zone in packs, although toddlers among the smaller sprayers are out of the main traffic. I visited late on a weekday (around 4) and it was busy with a healthy mix of ages and races. The playground equipment is also very neat and different (similar in style to the older kids area at Franklin Square, but with different offerings), but will be most enjoyed by kids of school age. In particular, the one piece of equipment that my toddler could climb onto had a single slide with a near-vertical drop that was way beyond her aptitude. However, a neat spinning cup seat and the spring-totter may fill that gap a bit. A fellow blogger offers some photos of both zones. Two specifics should be noted, given the complete absence of helpful signage:
  1. the cycling activity of the sprays requires a periodic signal that people are still around (which makes ecological sense, but is completely nonobvious): there are waist-high red poles in each subzone that have a hand sensor that will trigger things to start up again, should it fall quiet.
  2. According to a young regular, the water is turned off at 5, so don't plan your visit too late in the day or your crew might be disappointed.
Overall rating: 10

Update (11/27/11): Finally figured out the "cool electronic game" mentioned above, which is indeed both a hoot and a spur to exercise. Specifically, what looks like a podium with a foot platform (right near the jungle gym) is actually the controller for a series of games in which lights flash on various parts of the climbing equipment and you (solo or teams) run and climb to turn them off. My nearly 4-year-old is fanatical about this, and we recently spent more than an hour racing about with her until Spouse and I both had aching joints and happy exhaustion. Worth giving a try! (There appears to be something similar in the center of the spinning ring, which encourages you to spin to line up with specific target points, also fun.)

Update (6/11/12): Here's the official word on what's going on with the park this summer, since I know a lot of people are wondering:
The hours of operation for the spraygrounds for the month of June are Monday thru Friday 3 to 7 (We changed this based on complaints from Herron) and Saturday 12 to 4 until our summer staff starts. We are waiting on paperwork for the sprayground staff at Herron. They can start June 13. Unfortunately our seasonal budget has been slashed during this administration and we don't have much wiggle room. July 1 we will go to 7 day operation and the spraygrounds will be open on Sundays.
Will add more detail if we hear the specific hours for weekends for the rest of the summer. We need some spray!

A colorful site: Hawthorne Cultural Center

Playground: Hawthorne
Location: 12th and Carpenter (entries on Carpenter)
Date visited: 8/8/09

Equipment: Two areas for slightly different ages:
  • Smaller kids get two low and one medium slide, different types of steps, a motionless bridge; bucket swings are nearby.
  • Larger kids get two slides, horizontal bars, strap swings nearby.
type: modern resin; scale: medium area
Ages: toddler - elementary
Surface: rubbery composite under equipment, tarmac elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 1 (mostly on benches and small swings)
Water: N
Other: basketball court, some tables, rec center, paved play space
Access: dawn to dusk (no gate)

Impressions: Decent but uninspired equipment. Cheery murals and a mosaic give the area character, but it doesn't feel like it would hold kids' atttention long (unless they were playing a ball-type game). The playground was clean when we visited, but there were bits of glass around grates and plates, which might mean parents should watch young explorers carefully. There was nobody here when we visited (on a Saturday afternoon) -- a symptom of August in South Philly? It's notable that the recreation center, while large and cheerful (including lots of glazed ceramic handprints from kids who were involved during its period of renovation), appears to have neither windows nor accessible doors...
Overall rating: 5

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Worth going out of your way: Markward playground

Playground: Markward
Location: Taney & Pine (= the foot of the Schulykill River Park, in the Fitler Square area)
Date visited: 8/2/09 (a rainy Sunday)

Equipment: Two areas, separated by a few steps:
  • The zone for smaller kids had a very novel mix of slides (4 or 5) including moguls and various wiggles. Also bucket swings here, but only a couple.
  • The larger kid playset ranged from around waist height at one end to high overhead at the other, for a range of adventuresomeness or age. There are low slides and high ones, submarine-style ladder approaches and climbing walls, a jointed bridge and a narrow walkway (all very well protected with bars all along their lengths), and rings for horizontal swinging ("monkey bar" style).
type: modern resin and metal; scale: large area with zones, shading into an expansive park
Ages: toddler - high school?
Surface: rubber composite under play structures
Shade(0-3): 2 (but visited on cloudy day, so might have overestimated)
Water: Y* (see comment below)
Other: Tennis courts, basketball, open cement play areas (including some with marks for four-square and other games), tables, a softball field, extensive grassy areas with lots of shade, a rec center, dog parks nearby, trails
Access: dawn to dusk (unfenced)

Impressions: Cutting-edge equipment made me wish that there was time for me to try it out. Nice smaller kids area (slightly offset) and the largest extended play structure I've seen for bigger kids, with a huge range of climbing and sliding options. Good for families with mixed ages of kids. We visited on a rainy day, so no idea what usual traffic there is, but it's pretty isolated -- on the other hand, softball teams know about it, as do students from the nearby Philadelphia School, so who knows. Similarly, large stretches of shady benches could be luxurious or homeless-folk-attracting, depending on levels of busy-ness and oversight. You can count on our making a return visit, so watch this space for an update this fall. Also, a onetime eatery nearby is about to reopen -- we're rooting for it to be sandwiches and coffee, to make this a parental Mecca!
Overall rating: 10 (contingent on seeing a busy day)

Hard to peg: Weccacoe Park

Playground: Weccacoe
Location: 4th and Catherine (entrance on Cath)
Date visited: 8/1/09

Equipment: Two assemblies, loosely divided by age:
  • Smaller kids area includes 3 slides, some climbing options.
  • Older kids area with bridge, horizontal bars, 2 slides etc.
There is also a zone with sets of bucket and strap swings.
type: modern resin; scale: large area with loosely separated zones
Ages: toddler to middle school-
Surface: rubbery composite around play structures
Shade(0-3): 1 (mostly in toddler area)
Water: N
Other: tenis courts, ping pong table (probably need own ball and paddles), rec center, extra paved play space. Queen Village Neighbors Association is headquartered in the rec. center building.
Access: dawn to dusk

Impressions: Pretty nice, seemingly underused playground, but may be effect of August vacations at time of our visit. Seems like it could hold a lot of busy kids pretty easily. Not an inspired mix of equipment -- our toddler was more interested in stomping puddles than in playing in the toddler zone. Nicely shady around the smaller kid equipment, but wide open elsewhere.
Overall rating: 6 [but hard to say without seeing usual traffic]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

First venture into the NE: Jacobs Playground

Playground: Jacobs
Location: Upper Holmesburg (far NE Phila), corner of Linden Ave. and Jackson St. Just a few minutes from Rte. 95 (Academy Rd exit). No obvious parking on Linden, though easy parking on Jackson (or other residential streets nearby)
Date visited: 8/11/09

Equipment: Three areas (though no fences around any of them):
  • Fairly large apparatus for toddlers, with access by crawlable stairs or ladder, several small slides of different types, an S-shaped bridge, and two "flip-boards" with grids of squares to flip, one a standard tic-tac-toe design and the other a nice big one with letters and animals
  • Fairly large apparatus for larger kids with 7 different types of ladders to climb to get up, 5 slides (several pretty large, but one closed via nailed-on plywood), and a caged-in balance-beam bridge (see more below in "Impressions").
  • Swing set with 2 worn-out and somewhat deformed bucket swings and 4 strap swings
Ages: toddler through middle school
Surface: rubbery composite in play areas, sidewalk-material in central zone with benches
Shade(0-3): 2 (nice trees surrounding central zone, and other trees surrounding play areas, so should get partial shade much of the day, though most areas were in sun when I visited at high noon)
Water: No
Other: part of a large rec complex with basketball courts, tennis courts, baseball fields, and a pool (though it was closed when visited at noon in mid-August). View of a massive parking lot for oversized Philadelphia public works vehicles, which I guess could be a plus for some kids
Access: signage says open 6 AM to 10 PM

Impressions: Above-average size of equipment is a plus, although nothing extra here, just the typical climbing, slides, and (below-average) swings. Central zone with benches under trees is a nice feature. Setting is not so scenic -- next to large parking lot and a busy road (though play equipment is safely away from road).

This may be my own hangup, but the balance-beam in the larger apparatus was problematic. Our toddler daughter wanted to ramble around the bigger apparatus (for one thing, it was the one in partial shade), but the balance beam made that essentially impossible, since I couldn't let her cross it as she would certainly fall off (not to the ground, due to the surrounding cage, but her legs probably would have gotten wedged into the spaces between the cage bars, and quite probably injured). Probably for the older kids for whom the apparatus is aimed, who could use the high-ish guiderails and cross fairly easily, the balance beam is a plus, but it was a demerit for a toddler girl who sometimes likes to ramble around on the big equipment even if the slides are too tall for her. Other designs let her do so, but not this one.

Overall rating: 7

Sunday, August 9, 2009

An entertainment destination: Franklin Square

Playground: Franklin Square
Location: 6th and Race
Date visited: July, 2009 (a few times)

Equipment: Zones for smaller and bigger kids:
  • Toddler equipment has wide steps, a little house, several slides, jointed bridge, and a miniature climbing wall. Also bucket swings nearby and a bench rocker (sort of like a multiperson teeter-totter).
  • Older kids area is an "adventure" set-up, rope and rubber with climbing nets, spinning seats, and other challenges. Also strap swings nearby.
type: modern resin (toddler), super modern rubber and rope, etc. (older kids); scale: medium area with several zones
Ages: infant through middle school (+)
Surface: rubbery composite (tots), composite and wood chips elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 1
Water: N
Other: large grassy area(s), carousel (fee), mini golf (fee), central fountain, hamburger stand, picnic area, restrooms
Access: Dawn to dusk (no fences)

Impressions: Recently overhauled park is now a destination for both tourists and residents, offering a range of kid-friendly entertainments. The playground is on the west edge, near the carousel and shady picnic area, and is very cutting-edge and fun for all ages. It would take a lot of kids to make this place feel overrun, and there are nice options for changing speeds. The park itself is a little outside Center City and a bit isolated from residential areas -- it can be hard to walk to (due to busy roads on all sides) and parking is limited (with temptations to park illegally like the many police officers do). The new hamburger stand (opened since our last visit) is a definite plus. Shade in the play area would put this place over the top.
Overall rating: 9

Update 1: Turns out that this playground is tough for older toddlers, who may well feel too big for the smaller playset but in no way ready for the "adventure"-style bigger kid area. Be prepared to adapt...

Update 2: (5/21/11) They've added a hanging bar and a set of toddler-scale monkey bars to the little kid zone; our 3-year-old could just get onto them herself, and falls were only a few inches, so she could feel independent and challenged for a long time.

A hidden gem: Three Bears Park

Playground: Three Bears
Location: Delancy between 3rd and 4th (inside residential block)
Date visited: periodically during 2008-2009

Equipment: Bucket and strap swings, one large piece of equipment with several slides, a small climbing wall, jointed bridge, poles and bars, etc.; spaces under the playset reward toddler investigation (low tables, a door). Also, the granite bears statue can be climbed on.
type: modern resin and metal; scale: small area, one main play zone
Ages: infant to toddler (+)
Surface: Rubbery composite around equipment, slate elsewhere.
Shade(0-3): 1
Water: N
Other: Picnic-style tables, slate area nearby
Access: Dawn to dusk (no gates)

Impressions: Recently renovated park has very modern equipment for small children in a cozy sheltered neighborhood setting (long loved by many). When just a few kids are there, it feels neighborhoody and nice; when it's packed (a recent late-afternoon visit), can feel like a zoo, with kids fighting over toys and a wait for a swing. Plus: probably too small to attract daycare-type groups. Minus: swings hang very close to the ground, which is good for toddlers old enough to use the strap swings but tiring for parents pushing their tots in buckets.
Overall rating: 7

A summer refuge: Star Park

Playground: Star Park
Location: 6th and Lombard (entrances on each)
Date visited: frequently during 2008 and 2009

Equipment: Two areas, separate by age:
  • A partially fenced toddler area (I think posted for under-3) with bucket swings, two sets of modern plastic slide and climb equipment, and an older "wagon" with benches
  • A larger kid area with strap swings, a range of creative types of climb and slide ramps and poles, hanging bars, etc.
type: modern resin (toddler area) and some metal/older equipment (older kids); scale: large area with several zones
Ages: toddler through middle school
Surface: rubbery composite in play areas, tarmac area
Shade(0-3): 3
Water: Y (spray)
Other: Picnic tables, ball field, basketball courts, rec. center, wood-chippy areas
Access: dawn to dusk

Impressions: Lush feeling of shade on hot days, often breezy. Equipment is decent and varied, although a little hard-used. The toddler area is reasonably protected, but doesn't offer much for crawlers. Playground can get hectic when groups of kids come after school or from day camp-type places (more so in big kid area). Good for families with kids of several ages. Plus: near South Street for grabbing lunch or coffee.
Overall rating: 8

Update: Was padlocked on Memorial Day, 2010! Way to go, city employees!

Home base: Seger Park

Playground: Seger
Location: 11th and Lombard (entrances on each)
Date visited: regularly during 2008-2009

Equipment: Three areas, divided by age:
  • An infant/toddler clamber zone with very low wooden slides and a crawling tunnel -- excellent for new crawlers et al.
  • A fenced toddler area for ages 1 to 5, with three slides (straight, twist, tunnel), jointed bridge, bucket swings, and some low cement clamber toys.
  • An area officially for 6+ with a larger jungle gym, again with several slides and a range of climbing stuff, with strap swings nearby
type: modern resin pieces; scale: large area with several zones
Ages: infant-middle school
Surface: rubber composite in play areas (very spongy in toddler area), paved elsewhere
Shade(0-3): 1 (toddlers), 2 (older kids)
Water: Y (drip and spray)
Other: dog park nearby (fun to watch), small grassy area, paved area; tennis courts, basketball courts, small rec. center
Access: dawn to dusk

Impressions: Very nice range of modern equipment, in good shape. Especially good for the littlest kids (unusually so), and for families with kids of several ages. Unfortunately, there's too much sun for most of the day on some of the main equipment (although margins and tiny tot area are more shady), including the water zone. Can get busy, but usually sane, except when daycare groups pass through. Plus: Convenient for combinaion with grocery trips (Whole Foods & Superfresh both nearby), special neighborhood events (like a Halloween costume party). Minuses: Lots of seeds in cold seasons stick to everything (clothes, strollers, etc.); clientele is very white (except for nannies). Also, watch young walkers on the swinging bridge, as the chains are a bit more widely spaced than current standards, leading to nervous parent moments there...
Special note: This park is planning an overhaul soon (schedule unknown) -- putting the tots into better shade is rumored to be a major goal.
Overall rating: 8 Update (Jan, 2013): Playground has been given a complete overhaul and just reopened. Still serves crawlers to older kids, but now with more modern rope-based climbing, stepping stones, and more. Update to water sprayground still to come.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A new undertaking

Why does Philadelphia make it so hard to find a playground? Our family has been lucky to have good playgrounds in our vicinity, but also frustrated by how difficult it can be to locate any other playgrounds to include in a cross-town errand or other outing -- nobody really keeps a list! The Philadelphia Parks Alliance appears to exist to show off the activity of local politicians, and offers very little information (I'll give you a quarter if can make sense of this). The more obvious Parks and Recreation provides a monster list of its many facilities without clarifying which recreation centers or parks also have playgrounds or other offerings, and it omits several play areas that we had found on our own -- plus, it appears to divide the city in arbitrary ways (e.g., calling most of Center City "South Philadelphia"), making even their sparse regional information hard to navigate. Google searches yield a smattering of individual map locations, or arbitrary sets of outdates reviews on various opinion sites. Nothing actually tells you what you want to know.

So we've decided to make a systematic survey, driving up and down roads and dropping in on various parks as we find them, so that we can (1) compile a centralized list for other parents who are looking for playgrounds, and (2) give some guidance on what each one has to offer. We plan to summarize the types of equipment offered, their condition, the age range supported, and what other facilities are nearby. We also hope to add such experience-based information as how much shade is available and what kind of traffic the playground gets, although that will depend a bit on how often we can visit each site (and how much our toddler likes it). We'll also tag each review with key words that help you navigate by age group, part of town, special offerings (like water sprayers), and other features, so that you can find the relevant parks by clicking in the sidebar. Please give suggestions on other things that would make the project more useful!

The first half-dozen reviews are ready to post sometime this week, and then the project will inch outward over the coming weeks as busy modern life allows. If you have a favorite park that you want to be sure gets included, drop us a line; otherwise, we'll be working through Center City first (say, Washington to Springarden, river to river), making sure we haven't missed any hidden gems, and then spiralling gradually outward through South Philly, West Philly, and parts North as time allows -- could be a flurry this summer or stretched out over a year or more. We'll also update any review if new information arrives, either from commenters or from later visits, but that will take a back seat to getting an initial comprehensive list covered.

Looking forward to some fun discoveries along the way. See you on the playground(s)!