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)!