New York City doesn't lack for spectacular destination playgrounds, but Hippo Playground is more than a great place to play. Nestled among honey locust trees and a stone's throw away from the Hudson River in Riverside Park, Hippo Playground serves as the heart of the community for this slice of the Upper West Side and countless tots have grown up playing in the cool shade of its trees.
What the Hippo Playground may lack in modern bells and whistles, it makes up for in community and character, starting with the playful pachyderms who form the centerpiece of the playspace.
Originally built in 1937, the playground became the haven we know today in 1993, when nonprofit community group the Hippo Playground Project commissioned a designer to create the namesake hippo sculptures. Additional improvements have been made since then thanks to annual fund-raising events like the Spring Fair and generous donations.
The park is not too big, and not too small; in a word, it's just right for the toddler-to-preschool set and there's plenty of amusement for kids of varied ages. The comfort station, complete with clean, well-maintained restrooms at the northern end of the playground, is a definite bonus—because it's plenty hard to pull a kid away from all the action.
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When the city sun is too much, head to shady Hippo Playground with its water features for kids of all ages.
In the summer, the hippos serve as the park's water features. Two groupings offer water play for different ages of kids. Larger hippos spout out sky-high sprinklers big kids will get a kick out of, while the smaller hippos offer a more toddler-friendly trickle of water. A climbable boulder sits in their midst with water bubbling out its top, which trickles down to the ground and pools to allow tiny feet plenty of splashing room to puddle jump. Take note: The largest hippo is hollow, so if you can't find your child, there's a good chance they've discovered this super-cool hiding spot.
Watch your kids feel a huge sense of accomplishment on the rings!
Hippo Playground also offers a pair of jungle gyms. The play set nearest the entrance is good for big kids, with a high walkway, rings, ladders, and a spiraling slide. My newly-minted 5-year-old is determined to master the low-to-the ground rings here! Head toward the back of the playground and you'll find a more toddler-friendly play structure.
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Take a swing before heading down the slide.
In addition to the two jungle gyms, there are a pair of old-school, freestanding slides in big- and little-kid friendly sizes, plus a pair of generic climbers. On the opposite side of the playground, you'll find a pair of swingsets and a sandbox.
For parents, there are benches galore, and the whole spot is shrouded in shade. Springtime brings beautiful cherry blossoms to life just outside the playground, and the 91st Street Garden is a pleasure to the senses all summer long.
Enjoy the community vibe and the shade for caregivers at this lovely park.
The Hippo Park Playhouse is located at the northern end of the playground, adjacent to the bathrooms. When it's not hosting special events put on by the Hippo Playground Project, it's the perfect, affordable party spot and can be rented out by the hour for a DIY party complete with plenty of built-in outdoor entertainment.
In addition to the Spring Fair, Hippo Playground hosts a legendary Halloween parade annually, which seems to be a rite of passage for toddlers from the Upper West Side and beyond. And, lest you think this playground is deserted come winter, it's also home to a great sledding hill.
So, no matter the season, Hippo Playground offers plenty of fun and community-friendly events. The playground is located in Riverside Park near 91st Street.
Photos by the author
A previous version of this post was published in July 2011. Allison Tibaldi contributed reporting.