‘Welcome to the Playground’ by John Bemelmans Marciano

How an NYC author’s view of the jungle gym scene changed after he became a father


kids on playground in winterPlayground. Just say the word to a New York City parent and it conjures all kinds of thoughts, concerns, and emotions. Danger. Conflict. Boredom. And occasionally even fun.

Back in my 20s, I would see a playground in the city and think: “What a waste of real estate.” In the 1990s, New York was just getting its act together, removing chain link fences from around parks and installing old-style streetlamps, attractive urban furniture, and well-thought-out plantings—as well as garish multi-colored playgrounds with dimpled black rubber ground cover. Beyond the issue of aesthetics, I thought, were kids really such sissies nowadays that they needed mats to play outdoors?

As with just about everything else in life, my perspective on playgrounds changed when I had my own child. Stuck inside for long stretches with a creature unable to hold itself upright, I would take every opportunity I got to pack my daughter like a burrito into the Ergo and go out into the world. I would pass by playgrounds filled with running, screaming, flying children and look upon the scene longingly, just waiting for the day my little chicken could join the flock.

Even before she was in any way ready, I was wrangling Galatea into swing harnesses and holding her in my lap for trips down the slide. As soon as she could crawl, I brought her over to the toddler area. (The resulting blackened knees and hands made me realize this was not such a good idea.) All the while, it seemed impossible she would ever become one of those pint-sized super-heroes who owned the jungle gyms.

She did, at last, get to the point where she could have some fun on her own, and of her own free will. We soon became playground tourists. Not that this was our plan—my wife and I signed Gal up for all kinds of classes, but every one of them was a bust. While other toddlers happily banged their drums and shook their tambourines, she just wanted to sit in my lap. Anything that had to do with following directions was met with stubborn resistance, a trait that got her booted out of the Twinkle-Twos program at ballet school. (She still resents anyone whose name begins with “Madame.”)  The only thing she really enjoyed doing out of the house—other than eating pizza and ice cream and watching puppet shows—had to do with swings and slides.

Hitting a wide array of playgrounds had less to do with curiosity and more to do with the errands that took us all over the city and the need for a reward for putting up with long subway rides and car trips. There is a sameness to New York playgrounds as far as equipment goes, and what few novelties there might be—metal super-soakers, climbable animal statues—get old pretty quickly. The cultural diversity, however, is wondrous. There are nanny playgrounds, mom playgrounds, stay-at-home-dad playgrounds, as well as playgrounds for older parents, hipster parents, helicopter parents, parents with one kid, parents with teams of kids, and so on.

Then of course there are the unique experiences you have, like when my daughter had a magical encounter with a child she would never otherwise have met, and they played just perfectly. We’d try to go back to those playgrounds, but just like when you revisit the same beach town where you had a magical vacation, you can never recapture that first time. Sadly, the opposite is not true—we definitely had our bad mojo playground, the one that was convenient but where something always went wrong, be it an obnoxious boy who wouldn’t share the plastic house or a squirrel with no boundaries.

When my daughter started in nursery school, our playground travels were curtailed, and we tended to stick to those nearest her school or home. She would then inevitably come across a friend and run off to play, while I got left chitchatting with the pal’s parent or babysitter. The afternoons became like one long cocktail party, where you knew no one and there was no alcohol. I started to come full circle and felt myself resenting the whole playground thing, and I began to take long walks to the one refuge that parents in Red Hook have from the urban gerbil treadmill: Valentino Pier.

The pier is little more than a patch of grass on the waterfront, but in warm weather it always attracts a gang of neighborhood kids. The activities are chasing and being chased, trying to climb the flagpole, and throwing rocks in the water. A long piece of rope keeps the crew busy for hours, used as a lasso, a prison, or whatever strikes them at the moment. When the sun sets on a hazy summer evening behind the Statue of Liberty, it feels like an oasis that makes city living okay, and vacations unnecessary.

It was with trepidation that I found myself back in the playground world when my daughter started pre-K in the fall. At pickup, all the kids from her class would head straight over, and so would we. I was thankful for the instant group play date, of course. I was also struck to realize that she was officially one of the flying, screaming kids who lorded over the playground, and I smiled to see the young parents desperate to work their way in. Then there were the parents that I had been seeing on and off for four years, and talking to them no longer had the feel of trying to survive some accidental bad date; it was more like being around the watercooler at the parenting jobsite. We talked about the things New Yorkers of all ages talk about–real estate and restaurants—as well as those parent-specific topics like schools and how to deal with TV-related meltdowns. And then there was time, too, for pondering the great questions of life—like why don’t New York City playgrounds have see-saws? Other than the emotional ones, that is.


John Bemelmans Marciano is an author and artist and the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, who created the Madeline series. Marciano has carried on the Madeline legacy through several books, the latest of which is Madeline and the Old House in Paris (Penguin, 2013). He is also the author of The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield (Viking, 2013). Marciano lives in Brooklyn with his wife Andromache and their 4-year-old daughter Galatea.