An Uncommon Playground

I finally got to visit the play area on the Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts – A superbly-designed space with hills, custom wooden structures, sand and water play areas, logs, plants, and other fun and unusual components. It includes many elements that help define a successful playground – one modeled on natural features that fosters imaginative, open-ended play. Although there weren’t many children there when I visited (likely due to cold weather and other plans on Easter Sunday), I could tell that the playground is well-used and loved, with sand tracked all over the place!
 
Cambridge Common Playground 1
A challenging wooden climber
 
Cambridge Common Playground 2
Sand play station
 
Cambridge Common Playground 3
Swings, plants, rocks, and a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round
 
Cambridge Common Playground 4
Climbing net on a hillside
 
Cambridge Common Playground 5
A custom wooden structure, slide, and tunnel
 
Cambridge Common Playground 6
Water play station (too cold in March for the water to be turned on yet)
 
Cambridge Common Playground 7
One of several attractive custom wooden benches
 
Cambridge Common Playground 8
Custom wooden picnic table and seats
 
Cambridge Common Playground 9
Sculptural entry gate
 
Cambridge Common Playground 10
Logs provide a balance challenge
 
Cambridge Common Playground 11
Wooden “ship”
 
Cambridge Common Playground 12
Double slide embedded in a mound
 
Photos by Alice Webb

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An Oasis in the Inner City

cover - WSDCC playground

Kids from impoverished sections of my city don’t often get to play in natural settings, since they typically live in apartment houses and buildings with little to no yard space. That has recently changed for some lucky preschoolers at the Webster Square Day Care Center here in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The center, which operates out of the lower level of a church, wanted to update their playground, which then consisted of scattered equipment within a sand surface. Originally their goal was to simply change the surfacing to a safer material that would be acceptable under current state requirements for day care centers. However, I convinced them to take the renovation a step further and add some nature-based features for a more enriching play experience.

My firm developed plans for this playground, and the day care center received several grants which funded the improvements over a period of a couple years. Since the budget was fairly limited, we retained the existing play equipment, keeping the larger pieces in their pre-existing locations and moving the smaller items. Plants, rocks, stepping stones, logs, water and sand play tables, musical chimes, and a vegetable garden were added to the space.

Although the playground is used exclusively by the day care center during the weekdays, it is open in the evenings and on weekends for use by neighborhood children. The kids get a lot of enjoyment out of this space, and I’m told that the natural features are particularly popular. A few “before” and “after” photos are included below to illustrate the improvements.

1 - before - west end A
BEFORE:  A couple of play panels, sand surfacing, weeds, and an ugly fence (owned by the neighbors) were all that existed on the west side of the playground. The wooded area behind the play area is on adjacent property.
 
2 - after - west end A
AFTER: Relocated play house, plants (including shrubs which will grow to hide the fence), stepping logs, & chimes. The drums are portable, stored in a nearby shed.


3 - before - west end B
BEFORE: West end of the playground
 
4 - after - west end B
AFTER:  Lots of enjoyment from a few simple features


5 - before - east end
BEFORE: East end of the playground
 
6 - after - east end
AFTER:  Rocks and plants create a space for imaginative play.


7 - before - central area
BEFORE:  Central section of playground
 
8 - after - central area
AFTER:  Existing play equipment was retained, engineered wood fiber safety surfacing was installed, and a sand table was added. An at-grade sand play area is situated behind the table.


9 - before - garden area
BEFORE:  Unused, weedy area west of the existing shed
 
10 - after - garden area
AFTER:  A raised vegetable garden for the children to learn about growing food
 
Photos by Alice Webb and the Webster Square Day Care Center staff

High Line at the Rail Yards

On a recent March weekend while visiting New York City, I had the opportunity to walk the newest section of the High Line that opened last September. This half-mile long segment wraps around a large storage yard for commuter trains, between West 30th and West 34th Streets, with a nice view of the Hudson River along part of its length. The final 1/3 mile of this new phase is currently open as an interim walkway, to be completed once the neighboring Hudson Yards mixed-use development is built on a platform over the train yard.

One can now walk the entire 1.5-mile length of this former freight train trestle. It’s become a very popular place for both locals and visitors, with a steady stream of walkers even on the cool and windy day when I was there. The High Line ranks as one of my favorite urban parks, with a creative design that incorporates many references to its historic railway usage. I also enjoy the numerous interesting views of the city from 30 feet above the streets.

Be sure to check out my other two blog posts on this terrific linear park: Up on the High Line and The High Line, Section 2.

High Line at the Rail Yards 1
The Grasslands Grove features a variety of “peel-up” furnishings, including benches, a picnic table, a see-saw rocker, and a chime feature for children. This signature style of site amenity can be seen along many parts of the High Line.

High Line at the Rail Yards 2
Stacked seating borders the section that parallels West 30th Street, near a new building that is under construction to the north. The landscape near the High Line in this area will be changing over the next few years as tall buildings transform the low-lying rail yards site.

High Line at the Rail Yards 3
The high line’s original rail tracks are exposed and now function as walkways in three places along the route, referencing the park’s former use. Aggregate bonded with an adhesive was installed between the ties, creating a very firm and level surface, accessible to wheelchairs.

High Line at the Rail Yards 4
A row of benches flanks the 11th Avenue “Bridge” (to the left of the photo), a section of walkway that arches somewhat above the surrounding surfaces. The rail yards can be seen to the right.

High Line at the Rail Yards 5
The Pershing Square Beams: A children’s play area featuring an exposed portion of the High Line’s original framework, and also including entertaining elements such as periscopes and a “gopher hole”. In the warmer months, perennial plantings sprout up in the spaces between some of the beams.

High Line at the Rail Yards 6
The interim walkway includes the original tracks with self-seeded plants (as the High Line had appeared for many years after the trains stopped running in 1980). It becomes a lush green linear meadow during the warmer seasons. The walkway portion is surfaced with bonded aggregate, flush with the intersecting rail lines. The High Line curves to the right to run parallel with the Hudson River in the distance.

High Line at the Rail Yards 7
Large stacked timbers serve as seating at this section of the interim walkway, somewhat reminiscent of oversized railroad ties.

High Line at the Rail Yards 8
The interim walkway slopes down to its terminus at West 34th Street.
 
Photos by Alice Webb

Mid-Century Playgrounds – Imaginative Fun

Starting in the 1950s and extending into the ‘70s, playground design took a creative turn, away from the galvanized steel structures of yore. Instead of specifying manufactured pieces, designers began to customize entire play areas. Concrete, brick, and other hard materials were used extensively. Several playgrounds built in this style can be found in Central Park, New York City, (photos below). Some of these have been upgraded, maintaining the integrity of the original designs, while complying with today’s safety standards. I like the sculptural qualities and connectivity of the climbers and other features, in addition to the water play areas incorporated in several of the playgrounds. However, I found the spaces to be rather cold and drab in appearance. In my opinion, interspersing some low- and mid-sized plant materials throughout these playgrounds, (not just along the perimeters), would turn them into more inviting spaces and add play value to the sites.

1 - Ancient Playground A
Ancient Playground in Central Park, NYC, next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

2 - Ancient Playground B
Ancient Playground in Central Park, NYC, next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

3 - Adventure Playground A
Adventure Playground in Central Park, NYC

4 - Adventure Playground B
Water play in the Adventure Playground

5 - Adventure Playground C
Water play in the Adventure Playground

6 - Heckscher Playground A
Hecksher Playground in Central Park, NYC

7 - Heckscher Playground B
Hecksher Playground in Central Park (water play section)

Photos by Alice Webb

Teardrop Park – Nature in the City

During a recent trip to lower Manhattan in NYC, I had the opportunity to visit Teardrop Park. This little urban oasis in the Battery Park City neighborhood is situated between several high-rise residential buildings. It includes natural play areas in its southern half, and lawns and walkways to the north.

Much of the park was designed to represent a northeast forest environment, with rock outcrops, rolling hills, and lush (mostly native) vegetation. One of its prominent features is a vertical wall of stacked bluestone, arranged to resemble natural rock strata. This design includes water seepage through a section of the wall, forming icicles in winter.

In the middle of the children’s play area, a long slide is anchored into a rocky hillside and terminates in a large sand area. Nearby, there is a small sand play area for pre-school children, in addition to a water play zone for kids of all ages. Children and adults alike can also explore a wetland play path, where I observed a number of birds during my visit.

The sloping lawns to the north of the play areas are pleasant spaces for relaxation, and include several seating areas along the perimeter. There are also some more isolated seating/gathering spots along paths throughout the park. Despite the secluded nature of those areas, I felt very safe while there.

I was at the park on a Tuesday morning, so it was not packed with visitors. I would imagine that it attracts a lot more users during weekends and summer evenings, especially residents of the surrounding high-rises. The park provides many opportunities for imaginative play for kids, and serves as a pleasant environment for all.


Hillside slide with rock steps and overlook


Pre-school sand play area


Water play area


Wildlife in the water play area – the robin and the littlest boy are color-coordinated!


A seating area above the water play zone


Rock wall resembling natural strata


Portal through the rock wall


South (back) side of the rock wall portal


People relaxing in one of the lawn areas


The northern-most lawn area slopes toward the south to take advantage of the sun.


A small nook for imaginative play at one end of the wetland path

Photos by Alice Webb

Pier 6 Playground at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Early in the spring, I visited a creatively-designed playground at the Pier 6 section of Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. The day of my visit was unseasonably warm, so the playground was swarming with people. This play area is divided in several zones: an active area for school-age children with slides and climbers; a sand area for younger children with small climbing sculptures, play houses, and other elements; an area featuring numerous swing-sets situated between small hills; a water play area; and a natural vegetated area. I was pleased to see that much of the playground includes lots of plants – great for play, shade, and beauty!


A play structure and stepped seating are included in the school-age children’s zone, which is called Slide Mountain.


This is the longest of several slides located in Slide Mountain.


Play sculptures and wooden seating areas in Sandbox Village


Interactive play piece in Sandbox Village


Kids enjoy wooden play houses and other fun features


One of several swing-sets in Swing Valley


Swing Valley includes grassy hills along the walkways.


Unique water devices in The Water Lab (closed for the winter)


Another view of The Water Lab (closed for winter)


This natural area, which includes several paths and seating areas, is rather isolated from the other play zones. Very few people were visiting it when I was there. Fencing off the vegetated areas from access makes it less inviting to children also.

Photos by Alice Webb

Creative Features for Playgrounds

A children’s playground doesn’t have to be a boring flat area of safety surfacing with a couple of climbing structures plopped the middle. Interesting elements can be included that don’t add a lot to the cost of the project. Below are examples of a few fun features that enhance play environments by providing more of a variety of activities, fostering creative play, and adding visual appeal.


Two-dimensional brick/turf maze (Dunham Park, Cary, NC)


Slide situated on a mound (Colombo Park, Worcester, MA)


Slide on a hillside, surrounded with plants; and interesting series of archways along a walk (North Cary Park, Cary, NC)


Water trough and rocks in a sand play area (Forest Hills Park, Durham, NC)


Play houses add fun to this sand area, and a blue “river” flows from a water trough (Forest Hills Park, Durham, NC)


An original dragon sculpture used for climbing (Marla Dorrel Park, Cary, NC)


Playful planters (MacDonald Woods Park, Cary, NC)

Photos by Alice Webb