Journey Through the Playgrounds of Riverside Park

By Howard Freeman

Our boys frequent four playgrounds in Riverside Park, strung like pearls along the strand of green stretching from 76th to 97th Streets.

Only one, however, causes them to pretend that the ground is hot lava and they can’t touch it or they’ll fry. That would be the “Elephant” playground at 76th, and it was the one that was most “boring” to these active tikes and about which they had to mastermind a meta-narrative of its terrain, pretending that it could not be traversed except by hopping from play structure to play structure, behavior most surely outside the Approved Use By Designer specifications but certainly well within the bounds of boys being boys.

I was glad that they had derived this construct, because I had drug them down there from our apartment on 84th between Riverside and West End. I suppose eight blocks isn’t much, but for boys who had effectively grown up in New England and become used to eight blocks being a two-minute minivan ride watching Toy Story on the pull-down DVD, this was a hike.

Teak, my five-year-old, was first to complain, stopping short at the entrance and then doing his stiff-body about-face, ready to start walking north by himself, parent or not. This is a critical turning point in any venture we take, when either his oldest brother (Carter, 9) steps in, or all is lost. Mind you, we’re not above carrying him over our shoulder like a sack of so much flour while he is kicking and screaming, but our 40-something bodies would prefer to take a kinder and gentler approach and delegate the diplomacy to one of his tribe. Like another boy coming up with the bright idea that the first person whose toes touch the rubber coating along the play structure turns to toast.

Our preferred playgrounds are two: River Run at 83rd, where we are locals, much to the chagrin of the More Polite Society of our neighborhood – Read: those without rambunctious boys – and Hippo at 91st.

River Run Playground has rocks outside the playground, which the boys love and which account for about half our time each visit. The other half consists of waiting for the blue plastic baby swing (in which a body can lean back) that Teak insists on using each time, and refereeing Carter and Bennett (7) as they climb up the slide while other children are waiting to go down.

(How does this work? At what point in our maturation do we learn that cars obey posted directional laws like “One Way”? Why doesn’t this innate sense kick in at an earlier age?)

Invariably, Bennett will come crying that Carter, whom he idolizes, is off playing with some other boy and ignoring him. Once, I found him underneath the play structure, his nose dirty from wiping a dirty hand against it, his tears kind of popping out of his eyes they way they do.

The big attraction at River Run when we first visited is the merry-go-round. When they are alone, the boys insist that I push, and not just stand in one place and do so: no; they insist that I all-out sprint around the thing while they hold on and let their legs go flying outward from the centrifugal force. Of course, when a toddler arrives and wants to ride, I have to stand there and gently push it, silently thanking the parent who showed up.

River Run Playground also has a water spout, which we have not yet witnessed since moving back this most recent December. It has a sand pit about 20 feet across and with fanciful mermaid and merman designs. The bathrooms there and at other playgrounds are always a bonus for child and parent alike.

We discovered Hippo by scooting up the promenade one day, and the fact that the boys can climb into the belly of one of the four 3:4 scale hippos was a huge plus. All three stay in there for perhaps 20 minutes at a time, and I can manage to read a book, a novel no less, until there are unfamiliar children’s voices saying to parents nearby, “Mommy, there are some boys in there who won’t let me come in…”

“Some boys” meaning a group of shirtless bandits from the wrong side of the island in “Lord of the Flies.”

Reading time over.

The play structure at Hippo Playground is “older” than River Run and a whole lot older than Elephant, and the entire park is a little bigger. I didn’t notice any water spout or sand pit. It does, however, have tall deciduous trees inside the playground, which will be nice in summer, unlike River Run or Elephant, which both have trees only ringing outside the wrought iron fence around the parks.

Dinosaur Playground at 97th Street was our least favorite. While the two, 6-foot – fiberglass? – dinosaurs were fun to climb, each has a capacity of One Child, which presents obvious parity problems, not just for our family but for the other 100,000 families living on the Upper West Side. The topography and offerings were not so varied and lively as the other three. For older kids, however, there is a 25x50’ rink of sorts which, ostensibly, has water in the summer, but was being used for soccer. If you have kids 10 to 12, this might be a good choice.

There really is no fair way to rank the four against each other, since each has offerings for different age groups, so here’s my assessment based on age:

Elephant Playground: best for ages 2-5
River Run Playground: best for ages 3-10
Hippo Playground: best for ages 5-10
Dinosaur Playground: best for ages 3-5 for sand pit and swings, 6-12 for south part of playground with rink

Happy playing!

Howard Freeman is husband to Karen, an architect, designer and mom, and is father of three wonderful and active boys. He and his younger brother were born and raised in Manhattan and, he is quite sure, were equally mischievous, if not more, than his own boys, indicating that there is indeed justice in this world. He blogs at Mead On Manhattan.