Heckscher Playground, Central Park’s oldest and largest playground, has been the focus of many interventions over the years. More than any other of the Park’s playgrounds, it is a product the different eras of playground construction and ideas about play that have shaped Central Park. A comprehensive reconstruction completed in 2006 aimed to evoke these eras and to reinstate the playground as a prominent feature of the southern part of the Park historically known as the Children’s District. A major renovation of the restroom and program building, originally constructed as part of the 1926 playground, provided new public amenities and reestablished the building as the threshold to the playground. Transitional zones were created on the north and south sides of the playground, consisting of a picnic area and freestanding swings and slides (which evoke Moses-era play equipment) in a landscape surfaced with woodchips and surrounded with a low wood fence. The toddler play area was reconstructed based on Richard Dattner’s 1969 design, and the water play feature designed by Dattner in 1972 was reconstructed and modified to include a ground-accessible water feature. A formerly undefined expanse of asphalt in the center of the playground now connects all these areas. It features a variety of playful surfaces that include synthetic turf and multicolored safety surfacing arranged in undulating, geometric forms. These enliven the ground plane while providing space for unstructured play (images 34–36).

Viewed from Umpire Rock, the enormous outcrop that rises above the playground’s western side, the boundaries of the playground are difficult to discern. The reconstructed playground is extremely popular, but for many children, the main attraction is Umpire Rock, a reminder that play in Central Park has never been limited to playgrounds (image 37).

1 Tenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park For the Year Ending December 31, 1866 (New York: Wm. C. Bryant, 1867), 38.

2 Charles F. Wingate, "Amusements at the Central Park." Appleton’s Journal 8 (175), August 3, 1873, 129. 

3 Sixth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, 1863 (New York: Wm. C. Bryant, 1863), 55-56.

4 This and other new small parks were designed by Samuel Parsons Jr., who had a lifetime involvement in Central Park and was one of the primary defenders of the original ideals of Olmsted and Vaux. In his designs for new parks, he attempted to integrate the modern facility of the playground into a landscaped setting.

5 By 1927 there were 25 public playgrounds in New York City, many of them in recently created public parks. There were 15 additional playgrounds open only in the summer and 9 public gymnasium. Annual Report of the Department of Parks, Borough of Manhattan, for the year 1927 (New York: Press of I. Smigel, Inc., 1928), 37.

6 Fifty Years Fight to Keep Central Park From Invasion,” New York Times, July 10, 1910, SM12; “Urge City Against Popularizing Parks,” New York Times, March 23, 1911, 19; Roy Rosenzwieg and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992), 410–416.

7 “Perimeter Playgrounds,” New York Times, September 14, 1935, 14. 

8 “Padlocks Ordered For Playgrounds," New York Times, February 16, 1937, 25.

9 “Two Gorillas Can’t Break Swing, So it’s Ruled Safe for Children,” New York Times, November 25, 1960, 29. 

10 City of New York Department of Parks, Thirty Years of Progress (City of New York, 1964), 35.

11 “Park Head Explains Play Area Problem,” New York Times, October 5, 1956, 24; Group’s Demand for a Playground Attendant is Cut Short by Police,” New York Times, October 6, 1956, 23.

12 Rosenzwieg and Blackmar, The Park and the People, 481-483; Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 984-1004.

13 Hoving quoted in Sam Roberts, Ed. America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York. New York: The Museum of the City of New York and Columbia University Press, 92. 

14 Dattner, Richard. Design for Play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969. 65.

15 For more on the Jacob Riis Playground and Friedberg’s theories, see: M. Paul Friedberg, Play and Interplay (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970).

16 The history of Adventure Playground has been somewhat conflated with the history of the adjacent Tots Playground, the actual site of the “Battle of Central Park.”

17 The acknowledgements page of Dattner’s book, Design for Play, lists all the private donors to all the adventure-style playgrounds in Central Park.

18 Friedberg also wrote a book with suggestions and drawings for individuals to create their own playgrounds. M. Paul Friedberg, Handcrafted Playgrounds, Designs You Can Build Yourself (New York: Random House, 1975).

19 Between 1937 and 1960, an additional 5 playgrounds were removed. One was removed in the 1970s, as part of the expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the 1980s, Rumsey Playground was repurposed as the site of Summerstage, and the perimeter playground at East 77th Street was removed.

20 The New York City Housing Authority removed the playground in Jacob Riis Plaza in 1998 and replaced it with standard playground equipment, without much apparent protest or debate.