Nearly everyone who comes to New York City makes a point of visiting Central Park. It is, quite literally, the heart of Manhattan, and any guide to NYC will direct you to explore this green oasis, which is so full of wonders, it can make you feel like a kid again.
But for those of us with actual children in tow, sometimes you just need the relative sanity of a fenced in playpark, where you can sip a coffee while the youngsters burn off some energy. For us, some of the greatest gems sprinkled throughout Central Park are the 21 different playgrounds—all 100% free, open from dawn to dusk, many of which have been renovated by the Central Park Conservancy over the last few years. As a resident of Manhattan since my children were two and three years-old, I’ve done some serious investigation of at least two-thirds of those parks and have whittled down my favourites to these five Central Park playgrounds.
—Located in the south west corner of the Park from 61st to 63rd Streets. Entrance within the Park.
What makes it great?
- For starters the sheer size of the playground (it’s The City’s largest and oldest), which—in addition to a superfast big, tall slide and swing sets, a generous sand area, a multi-level play structure, and awesome summer water features—has lots of open space for practicing scooters, skates, or bikes.
- There are bathrooms located within the playground (ie. they are not open to just anyone in the Park.)
- It’s located in the Southwest corner of the Park, near the ballfields, where it’s not unusual to find local softball and baseball leagues of all ages, as well as charity games fielded by celebrities.
- In addition to the nearby vendors with the cart fare of hot dogs, pretzels, and ice cream, there is also a small cafe located near by. The Carousel is just a short walk away, and it’s not much further to Wollmen Rink/Victoria Gardens.
- Because of the size of this playground, depending on your children’s ages, you may feel the need to wander around after them, rather than chilling out on the sidelines.
Billy Johnson Playground
—Located just inside the Park at 67th and 5th. Entrance within the Park.
What makes it great?
- The stone slide, hands down. Sure, this playground has a large sand area, picnic tables, a few swings, and a nifty stone bridge (which my daughter finds endlessly fascinating), but no matter what season it is, the stone slide, cut into the hillside, is a delight for kids of all ages. Some of the more daring parents even bring a piece of cardboard to use as a pseudo-sled!
- If you are planning a stroll along Central Park’s famous promenade known as “The Mall,” add this playground to your itinerary, and you’ll be sure to see the beloved statue of Balto the Rescue Dog, rounding out even a brief visit to the Park. Both the playground and the statue are right along the most direct path running between the East Side’s Fifth Avenue and The Mall.
- This playground is also well-suited to wind down a trip from the Central Park Zoo or the Tisch Children’s Zoo, both of which are located just to the south.
- Unfortunately, there are no public bathrooms within this playground, so plan accordingly.
The Safari Playground (aka “Hippo” playground)
—Located on the west side of the Park, between W 91st & W 92nd Streets. Entrance within the Park.
What makes it great?
- Honestly, this one’s just about the hippo statues. The playground equipment is fairly standard, including a sprinkler in the summer months and a partially buried canoe (which is inexplicably an often-seen feature in our city’s playgrounds.) But, for the little ones, those hippos are simply amazing. They range in size and in how much of the animal can be seen, with at least one that’s large enough to crawl inside. Lesson: don’t underestimate the power of the hippo as a child attraction.
- This is probably the least crowded of all the playgrounds on my list, which can make for a relaxing visit. However, there is also no public bathroom in the Park within a mad dash, so keep that in mind if your littles are in the midst of potty training.
The Ancient Playground
—Located on 5th Avenue, at 85th Street. Entrance from 5th Avenue.
What makes it great?
- Here again you find a multi-level, giant playground, with concrete climbing pyramids, wooden structures, all manner of slides, swings, tunnels, ladders and bridges, with a variety of water features in the Summer. Strategically, the sand area is well away from all the other structures, but has a direct path to and from the gate.
- There are also large bathrooms located within the playground, as well as plenty of benches and picnic tables.
- Located just north of The Metropolitan Museum, this playground is a melting pot of tourists and city-dwellers, which can lead to genuinely once-in-a-lifetime playdates and some international socialization! Which may be why this is my absolute favourite of all the play parks, as time and again I’ve seen groups of children of all ages and backgrounds join together in games of team tag and the like.
- As with the Heckscher playground, the size of the Ancient playground means it can be easy to lose direct sight of your kiddo as they explore all the structures here. Frankly, I’ve gone in with my two and gotten dizzy trying to keep track of them. However, having learned the layout, I find that by staying on the upper level and keeping an eye on the gate, I can mostly let my rebels run around free (rather than chase after them).
East 72nd Street Playground
—Located just inside the Park at 5th Avenue and 72nd Street. Entrance within the Park.
What makes it great?
- Recently renovated, this playground was redesigned to be more user-friendly for both kids and caregivers. It used to be a very large sandpit, upon which all the other equipment sat. The water features were feeble, and the gate was in an awkward location. It now seems to be more accessible—the sand covered in favour of soft tarmac (although a few sand tables were added for who need their fix), and even location of the gate was moved to keep everything flowing smoother.
- With multiple tire-swings, standard swings, slides and a variety of climbing structures, this playground is an active kiddos dream, but small enough that you don’t have to follow your school-age kids like hawks.
- While I rejoiced at the sand’s departure, I’ve since found that the water features are the biggest bonus of the remodel. With the multilevel structures of ramps and tunnels channelling water from both the frolic-friendly fountain area and spouts built into the walls—this playground provides much of what makes the Ancient and Heckscher water areas enjoyable, but in a much smaller and more manageable playpark.
- The only true downside of this playground is the lack of public bathroom. Although there are facilities reasonably nearby, they are not mad-dash close.
Regardless of which playground in NYC you head to, it’s good to know…
- In NYC, playgrounds are not open to grown-ups who aren’t accompanying children. Adults aren’t welcome to bring a coffee and a paper and hang around watching kids at play. In fact, you’re encouraged to report any ‘creepers’ hanging around to the police. Same for the bathrooms inside the playgrounds where the only people allowed access are children and their caregivers.
- Another point to keep in mind, often the public playgrounds (both in and outside Central Park) are used by private schools, daycares, and day camps for their programs’ recess time. This is a year-round phenomenon and it is not uncommon to have a relatively quiet playground suddenly be swarmed with a gaggle of excited children, particularly late in the mornings or early in the afternoon.
- Finally, if you are headed into a playground in the summer, always be prepared to find at least some type of sprinkler/water-feature. This usually means kids with water balloons and/or water guns, so plan for damp to wet children and a possible rogue spray in the face, even when you’re offside.
Personally, I keep a hand towel, a few plastic cars, and a bit of sidewalk chalk with me in a ziplock bag in all but the dead of winter. With a touch of imagination and these few items, the possibilities are endless at pretty much any one of Central Park’s amazing playgrounds.
Have I missed a good one? Let me know your favourite Central Park playground!