UPPER WEST SIDE — Summer is upon us, and for Upper West Side parents that means trying to keep cool while giving kids a place to play. Before you hit the streets with armloads of kids' gear and no road map of where you're headed, check out our guide to the best playgrounds in the neighborhood.
1. Best Playground for Toddlers: Mariners' Playground at Central Park, West 85th Street and Central Park West.
Mariners' Playground is ideal for the parent of an active toddler. The benches lining the perimeter are in full shade and close enough to the action that you can sit down during playtime but jump up for close proximity to the kids. There are clear sight lines in this small enclosed playground and one main entrance that restrict entry and exit. One mother described it as "small and contained, and without much to do," but for some that will be a persuasive argument in favor of the plagyround. There's a small sprinkler and sandbox, a swingset and two jungle gyms with easy slides that are purposefully squat and manageable for a younger age group.
Note: There are no bathrooms at this playground. Use the public bathrooms at the Natural History Museum nearby on Central Park West at 81st Street.
2. Best Playground for a Fun History Lesson: Tecumseh Playground, West 78th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Tecumseh Playground is named after William Techumseh Sherman, one of the most famed generals of the Civil War. A plaque outside the playground shares some of the general's history, including that he eventually moved back to New York City. The park is designed to imagine a journey between New York and the West, with a play structure representing shops and urban life on one side and a wagon and buffalo sculptures on the other. There's also a train and wildlife sculptures to inspire. Do not underestimate the power of a play wagon to launch your kids into a world far from the city streets.
Note: Trees in the middle of the playground offer ample shade in this relatively small playground.
3. Best Playground to Spend the Whole Day: River Run Playground, 83rd Street and Riverside Drive.
River Run Playground seems to have it all and West Side parents and kids know it — keeping the popular playground abuzz with activity from early in the morning until dusk.
The playground is tucked away from the hubub of the city in Riverside Park and offers lots of shade. With on-site bathrooms, ample benches and the Boat Basin Cafe close by, it's easy to spend a whole day at the playground. There's even a small bike rack inside the gates that makes for perfect scooter parking.
River Run Playground has an abundance of playground equipment: 12 swings, three see saws, multiple jungle gyms, and monkey bars.
It also has all the makings of a beach outing — with a large sprinkler at the center, an ample sandbox, and a small "river" runnning through the center of the space. The "river" features a shallow edge, where smaller children can play quietly with beach toys without risking getting splashed or soaked by more active river-runners.
Just outside the playground is a huge craggy rock that older kids can climb on and use for games and exploring. When hunger strikes, a snack cart is usually parked at the playground's entrance.
4. Best Playground for Adventure Seekers: Diana Ross Playground, 81st Street and Centrald Park West.
Diana Ross provided funding for this playground in the 1980s and as you might expect, it's a playspace that really sings. The playground features a large interconnected wooden structure set in sand that can feel like an obstacle course or even a pirate ship. There are fire poles, nets, ladders and slides to scurry across, but there's almost no shade so bring water bottles to refill at the fountain inside. Many children embrace the desert island feel of the play structure by soaking themselves in the playground's sprinkler before climbing aboard the fort again.
Kwentasha Phillips and her nephew Jose, 7, are big fans. "I think it's a better playground," said Phillips as Jose raced through the entrance.
"There are so many more things to play on and it's more diverse than other playgrounds in this area," Phillips said.
Jill Dubin was visiting from Boston and had planned a meet-up at the playground with friends after she and her boys visited the Natural History Museum, across the street. She thought the playground's proximity to the museum was a major boon.
5. Best-Kept Secret Playground: Arthur Ross Terrace at the Museum of Natural History near 81st Street and Columbus.
The terrace, an urban oasis for museum-goers and the public, opened in September of 2000, is one of the city's best kept secrets.
Parents, tourists and New Yorkers in the know bask on the grassy northern bank on the second-floor terrace on the grounds of the American Museum of Natural History, amazed the place hasn't been overrun by more people. A line of water jets spray across the terrace, which is almost an acre large, and entertain a large crowd of kids all day long. A large planetary display, part of the new Rose Center for Earth and Space, looms over the western side of the plaza creating a futuristic feel. Along with the grassy bank, clusters of cafe tables and chairs make the spot comfortable for onlookers.
The terrace is tucked away on the second story; so while hordes of shrieking kids amused themselves in the spray of the fountains and in a shallow wading pool at one end, many parents were surprised it isn't more popular.
"Doesn't it feel like a secret spot?" said parent Kim Whittham, who found out about the terrace last year after her son Jake joined a local kindergarten class.
"I'm always surprised it's not more crowded," she added. "It feels so spacious. They run themselves ragged and then we go into the museum afterwards."
The museum offers easy access to bathrooms, snacks and plentiful cold air conditioning.
Note: The play is spirited at the terrace, with kids running up and down a slippery metal surface.
6. Best Playground to Run Around: Playground Seventy, 70th Street and Amsterdam.
Playground Seventy has a basketball court and a handball court separated from the main playground, which feaures a twisty slide and an extensive jungle gym as well as swings and a sprinkler. Although it gets crowded, the jungle gym is large enough to handle lots of traffic, parents say.
"There's a large section in the shade and a separate ball area, so you don't have to worry about the little kids getting trampled," said Natalie Yeo, whose son Thomas is in kindergarten.
In addition, there are public bathrooms on the premises and an organic soft serve ice cream truck sits on the street outside most afternoons. Plus, the entire playground is shaded.
7. Best Playground for Train Fanatics: Little Engine Playground, Riverside Drive between West 67th and West 69th streets.
Little Engine Playground is a pristine playground with rubber covering the ground everywhere except the space by a sprinkler. The playground is small and quiet, with nice views of the Hudson River and a good breeze on most days. The main attraction for kids is the small train in the center where they can climb and play.
Most of the playground is in the shade, including the small swingset.
Brandon Henderson's son Cayden, 3, "loves the trains," and Henderson loves the convenience. He lives across the street at Trump Place.
Three large picnic tables inside the playground cry out for a railroad-themed birthday party.
Although there are no restrooms at the park, Pier I is close by, down a short footpath, and offers bathrooms, organic food and microbrews.