South Hill Elementary School playground

Playground hopping

This summer we had to get creative and figure out ways to keep Rowan entertained while doing our best to prevent the spread of Covid. That meant we spent a lot more time outdoors than we had ever imagined possible.

While playgrounds were off limits in the early days of the pandemic we did our best to avoid even saying the word aloud. Explaining that “playgrounds are closed” to a two-year-old is basically like telling him that his birthday is cancelled and all his toys have been melted down for scrap. No bueno.

South Hill Elementary playground was closed due to Covid as of April 2020

Thankfully most playgrounds did re-open and research showed that Covid was not easily spread by touching objects. Armed with hand sanitizer, we felt prepared to accept the risk of playing outdoors starting in July.

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect, and consider: what makes a great playground? In my view, there are at least four factors to consider:

  • Fun – the playground needs to be engaging and offer a variety of activities for kids of various ages and abilities.
  • Parent spaces – there should be space for adults to watch their kids comfortably.
  • Picnic areas – tables or grass for a snack break allow families to spend more time outdoors.
  • Restrooms – when you gotta go, you gotta go.

The ratings below are loosely based on these criteria.

Stewart Park

Late in August a brand new playground opened in Stewart Park. The new play equipment features wide, gentle ramps, and an Ability Whirl to allow people with disabilities a space to play. Rowan’s favorite feature seems to be the roller slide. The new play areas are thoughtfully designed and accommodates kids of all ages. The park also contains a smattering of older play equipment that seems to still entertain older kids.

Throughout the summer we came to Stewart Park regularly to play, walk on the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, and eat carryout picnic dinners. The splash pad, while a bit utilitarian, was a highlight of hot summer afternoons. In the summer the park has restrooms which are conveniently located near the playground area. There are several excellent spots to enjoy a picnic or snack while taking in a view of Cayuga Lake. The nearby shelters came in handy when we got caught in an unexpected rain storm. Even though locals routinely criticize it for its lack of swimming and year-round bathrooms, Stewart Park is a great destination for families.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Cayuga Lake State Park

The playground at Cayuga Lake State Park gets extra bonus points for its awesome Viking shipwreck theme. Rowan loved playing with the ship’s helm and exploring the decks of the boats. There’s plenty of space for parents to spread out, toss a picnic blanket and keep an eye on their children.

The playground is on Cayuga Lake and next to the swimming beach and a restroom. (Swimming was closed due to the lack of lifeguards when we visited.) I only wish this playground were a bit closer so we could visit it more often.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Auburn Street Playground

We first found this playground last year when we were living a few blocks away on Lake Avenue. We started calling it “triangle playground” for lack of any highly visible sign to contradict that name. It really isn’t fair to compare this little neighborhood park to some of the mammoth playgrounds we found this summer.

For an urban setting, this playground feels very enclosed and safe due to the fence along Dey and Auburn Streets. There are some benches, but no bathrooms (unless you know one of the neighbors). The playground is a nice feature for families in the neighborhood, but it didn’t seem to hold Rowan’s attention for long.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sampson State Park

Sampson State Park playground

When we visited Sampson State Park back in July to swim on Seneca Lake we had no idea that we would find a huge playground. Located right along the lake shore, this playground’s signature feature is an enormous cylindrical tower. Rowan was drawn to the tower like a magnet and quickly found a way to climb up as high as he possibly could. It was great fun for him to get up, but less fun to come down (he doesn’t seem to like slides much, yet).

The playground offered plenty of space for parents to watch their children from a comfortable distance. At the time we visited, the restroom options were limited, however I don’t believe this was a permanent situation. A large grassy area to the south offered plenty of space for a scenic picnic.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Cass Park – North Playground

This park offers two playgrounds and also borders the Ithaca Children’s Garden. This post will focus on the northern playground which is near the pool and rink.

This playground is right next to the Cayuga Inlet and accessible via the Waterfront Trail. It provides a spot to watch people launch canoes, kayaks, SUPs, and other small boats. The play equipment was generic and not memorable. The playground is tightly enclosed with a simple fence – which is good for keeping kiddos nearby but not great for allowing parents adequate space. While Cass Park does have bathrooms, they seem to be far away and were in rough shape at the time of my last visit.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

South Hill Recreation Way

No, I don’t know why his pants were wet.

There is a playground roughly in the middle of the South Hill Rec Way. We call it the “choo choo playground” since it has a wooden train structure that Rowan has been fond of since we found it last summer. It is hard to separate the trail from the playground neatly – we always arrive at the playground after a walk or bike ride on the trail. But for this post, I’ll focus on the playground.

Rowan has found a lot of ways to have fun at this big wooden play structure. Even though much of the equipment is beyond his ability, he likes to crawl around the “dungeon” and pretend to drive the train. However, there are no restrooms anywhere nearby and due to the siting and design of the playground, it can be difficult to monitor where kids are in this dense structure. There is a picnic table, which makes up for the absence of grass near the playground. The playground is a great little destination, but not a place we can stay for too long.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Robert H. Treman State Park

While we only visited Treman once this summer, it stuck out in my mind as one of the best playground experiences we had. Even though it did not have a distinct theme or any memorable play structure, I recall that Rowan had fun and probably would have played longer.

All the play equipment was surrounded by a perimeter of loosely spaced rocks, roughly 18″ to 24″ tall, a perfect spot for parents to sit and monitor their kids. Like other NY State Parks, the play areas for older and younger kids were separated. There were restrooms within a short walk, and plenty of grass and picnic tables nearby.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.