Tompkins Square Park: The Spot to Play in Alphabet City

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An all you need to know guide on taking the kids to the Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan.
With its recent history as an open-air homeless shelter and drug-dealing Mecca, Tompkin’s Square Park does not, perhaps, come naturally to mind when plotting out playground explorations. But after New York Magazine dubbed its main playground as one of the city’s top 19 (yes, they stopped at 19) playgrounds in their Summer round-up issue, I decided to head there with my nearly 3 year-old son for visits this past summer and fall.
Given a $1.1 million makeover in 2009, the playground is indeed a fun spot that benefits from the mod play equipment that’s now becoming de facto at new playgrounds. But it’s also very much a part of East Village culture. Before you step inside the playground gates, you’ll pass smoking rockers, homeless bag collectors, and edgy runaways perched on the park benches. None of these denizens is the least bit interested in you, other than to see if you can spare a smoke, so the atmosphere isn’t threatening. It’s just East Village—charmingly scruffy.
Overall, this is an amazing play spot for 5+ aged kids—the equipment fosters extensive climbing and promotes thinking your way through the variety of ways you can reach a platform—torqued ladder, rope chain, rock-wall grips, cut-outs. The baby and toddler play areas are nice too, but they don’t compare to the big kids areas in terms of fun options and tantalizing danger. My son wasn’t the least bit interested in his age-appropriate area, and proceeded to climb all over jungle gyms that are about 12 feet high and riddled with spots for taking big falls. I didn’t mind spotting him on his adventures, but some parents fought to keep their little ones on the little structures.
Climbing Structures: Welcome to the training ground for America’s next generation of rock, ice, and mountain climbers. Just about every surface from the toddler play area to the two large big-kid ones offers climbing opportunities. The variety of climbing surfaces promises to prevent boredom from setting in until at least your 25th visit.
Creative Details: A spinning pole that can be rotated by parents or kids with good kick in their legs was so popular, that my son only got to ride it once over the course of our two visits. There are also hammock-like seats beneath the two larger jungle gyms in which kids can take a rest without missing the action.
Sandbox: OK, I might be thinking of this as a highlight solely by my disbelief in how clean the sand was during both of my visits here. With its East Village location, I fully expected the large rectangular box to be a giant ashtray, but the sand is free of cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and the other typical sandbox detritus. With the sprinklers and a water channel nearby, the box offers plenty of sculpting fun for kids (as well as gritty laundry loads for you). There is one drawback: The lovely shady trees that make the edge of the sandbox a nice spot to sit host pigeons that consider it a nice area to do something that rhymes with sit.
Tire Swings: Not one, but two tire swings in great shape. We normally wait about 10-20 minutes at playgrounds to get on one swing, so having two cuts the wait in half. They’re also in the shade, so there’s no worry about hot tire rubber on tiny rear ends.
Located in the Park Office building, just to your right down the path extending from 9th Street. They’re the typical park facilities, so have spare toilet paper and plenty of your own soap or anti-bacterial lotion at hand.
For quick snacks and juices, Fare’s Deli on Avenue A just off 8th has the usual array of chips, puffs, etc. My favorite child-friendly lunch spots are further down Avenue A toward the subway: Two Boots Pizzeria (Full restaurant on the west side of Avenue A at 3rd Street, slice café on the east side) and Benny’s Burritos (Avenue A and 6th). Closer to the park is Odessa Café for pierogies and other Polish-inflected diner fare at Avenue A between 7th and 8th.
The park is between Avenues A and B and bordered by East 7th and East 10th Streets. Take the F train to the 2nd Avenue stop and exit toward the 1st Avenue side of the station. Once above ground, walk up 1st to 9th Street, turn right and walk one block to Avenue A. The park gate will be just across the street, and the playground will be to your right.
Caroline Bailey