Still the favorite stomping grounds for activists of all stripes, Union Square is now a great meeting spot for active kids too. The playground here, opened in 2009, was really one of the first to kick off the more adventurous designs that inspired the likes of Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 among others. While the tot lot offers a more traditional playground structure, the rest of the area resembles a sculpture garden with beautifully designed structures and plantings spread around the nearly 15,000 square-feet of space. I actually thought a lovely over-size corkscrew was art until kids began pulling themselves through the coils. Both my 3.5 year-old son and I loved the openness and variety here, and found ourselves playing here for nearly 5 hours with a few breaks for lunch, snack (farmer’s market!) and book shopping at Barnes & Noble.
The tunnel slide: Set atop a rocky “mountainside,” its fun to get too and fast-going on the way down. If you have a little one that wants you along for the ride, duck! Or suggest having them follow the wooded trail that extends from the other side of the slide deck.
The tunnel slide
The metal mountain: Or heat blister as I like to call it. It’s at once the dumbest and funnest thing ever to rise in a playground. In the sun, it’s a burn hazard—hence the removal of the one in the baby play area at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1—but in the late afternoon, it’s alive with kids running at it from all sides to get the momentum up to make it to the top. I stupidly helped my little guy up only to have him refuse to come down. Despite my climbing background, I couldn’t make it up and had to have a teen fetch him. NOTE: This is covered by a tarp in the deep heat of summer.
Climbing structures: A giant corkscrew, rope nets, climbing walls, and funky metal “cat tails” provide an inventive way for kids to gain altitude. Some are quite challenging for kids under-4, but even if they stumble and fall, the rubber tile ground cover here is much softer than at other playgrounds.
Spinning structures: A revolving disc slightly taller than the one in the Vanderbilt Playground provides dizzying fun for kids who ride on top or hang on to the edges. A rotating ring reminiscent of carnival swing rides offers thrills for big kids with good grips. Both spin quickly, so make sure your kids take you seriously when you say “hang on!”
Bathrooms: There is one located right within the big kid play area. It’s got one big stall and a changing table. The toilet is a loud auto-flush model, which scared my son right off the potty at an unfortunately critical moment. If for some reason it’s not open, the Barnes & Noble has a families-only bathroom on the second floor.
Eats: Unfortunately, McDonald’s looms just 50 yards are so away from the playground, but otherwise healthier fare abounds at the Farmer’s Market held here Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Maoz Vegetarian offers delicious falafel and hummus (38 Union Square E.). And if the kids do have burger cravings, look to Good Burger (870 Broadway) for better-quality and bird burger options. Noodle lovers can head to Republic (37 Union Square W.)
Directions: The playground is on the north side of Union Square, just below 16th street between University Place and Union Square East, and stands directly atop the N, R, Q, 4, 5, 6 lines at Union Square station. The F train at 14th Street is two avenue blocks away.