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Nanny and Kids Tour 207 Manhattan Playgrounds

By Jeff Mays | August 11, 2011 9:44am
Nanny Sarah Swymer and Lexi and Annie Lee at a playground in Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem.
Nanny Sarah Swymer and Lexi and Annie Lee at a playground in Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — The first thing Lexi Lee did when she entered the playground at 152nd and Bradhurst Avenue was run to the water fountain.

"Okay, it works," the almost 7-year-old yelled to her sister Annie, 4 and their nanny Sarah Swymer, 25.

And then Annie ran to the swings to see if she could climb aboard on her own. She couldn't.

Swymer and her young charges examined the park's features with the efficiency of a city health inspector. Bathroom? Check. Shade trees? Check. Before long, both girls were hanging upside down by their knees and Swymer was grateful that she made them wear skorts — a hybrid of shorts and a skirt.

This was the 100th playground they had visited in Manhattan this summer and they are only halfway through their goal of visiting all 207 in the borough. Before year's end the girls plan to examine every playground on the island — one swing and slide at a time— and blog about it at NYC Park Hopper.

"Since it's my last summer with the girls we wanted to do something extra special," said Swymer, who will begin scaling back her nanny job to launch Sarah Poppins, a new company that will take kids on tours of New York City.

"We came up with the idea of trying to go to all the playgrounds. And since we are going, why not share our experiences? It's very valuable information," she added.

"I envision this as a resource for anyone going to a playground," said Swymer.

On NYC Park Hopper, the parks are rated on a scale of 5 slides.

They look for qualities like plentiful water fountains and shade — which are all important if kids are going to be playing outside for hours at a time. And if there aren't enough benches for the girls to store their backpacks while they play, that's also a problem. Dirty sandboxes are simply a no-no.

Swymer also checks out the sight lines in the park, preferring parks where she can see the girls from just about anywhere she's standing.

Traveling Manhattan's neighborhoods has been an adventure of its own. The trio generally visits several playgrounds in one day, averaging about four. Many are different playgrounds located within the same park.

An exuberant Annie gave an off-the-charts 28 slides rating to a playground in Tompkins Square Park at Avenue A, because she could reach the monkey bars.

"I like to do the monkey bars that are close to me," said Annie.

But reports of rodents in the area led Swymer to award three slides overall, despite the cool rock-climbing walls and the cheap pastry shops nearby.

"There's nothing worse than getting to a park and there's not enough benches or it's covered in flies," said Swymer.

Other playgrounds that they've reviewed so far include Harlem's great family-friendly playgrounds like Courtney Callender at 130 Street and Fifth Avenue. Diana Ross Playground at Central Park West and 81st Street has great tire swings but is often crowded with tourists coming from the American Museum of Natural History. Evelyn's Playground at Union Square has state of the art equipment such as a large silver dome, a rotating disc and climbing ropes but lacks shade and has hard rubber tiles that are easy to trip over.

The girls like the playground at Bradhurst Avenue and 149th Street, because it was in great shape. But Swymer said it lost points because it has separate playground areas for older and younger kids, making it tough for parents or caregivers to keep watch over children of different ages.

While one of the playgrounds they liked the most was in Hell's Kitchen at 48th Street and 10th Avenue, they also found the neighborhood had some of the most sketchy playgrounds.

"Lots of homeless people taking showers in the sprinklers," said Swymer.

But it's not all about counting benches and measuring swing height. At every park, Lexi and Annie, who live with their parents on the Upper West Side, make new friends. They meet kids of different races, different ethnicity and income levels in the playground who they might not have otherwise been exposed to. They run, jump and exercise.

"I like seeing what's different about each park, meeting new friends and having an adventure," Lexi said.

"I like the sprinklers," Annie said, referring to the 152nd Street Park.

With Sarah Poppins and NYC Park Hopper, Swymer, a Penn State graduate and Pennsylvania native said she's found a way to channel her love of working with kids.

"I was always good with kids but didn't want to be in a classroom setting so I decided to make the world my classroom," she said. "They are exploring and having fun. For them, this is just another rock to turn over and see what's underneath."

Before long Lexi and Annie were snacking on chips, drinking water and recharging their batteries for the next playground. But then Lexi spotted a colorful turtle sculpture she wanted to check out.

"It's been fun and tiring," Lexi said before running off. "I had a great summer."