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Parent-tested playgrounds

Marty Levine
August08/ 2011

Beth Hendrickson has a new favorite playground, and she almost can’t believe it bumped her other favorite playground lower on the list.


Hendrickson blogs about being a mother at Belle Squeaksnamed for her pipsqueak Isabelle, now 2 and a half years old. Her former favorite playground was the Blueberry Patch on Blueberry Hill, in Franklin Park. She loves it because it’s designed specifically for toddlers to 5th graders, and for its three choices of swing, so Isabelle can satisfy her urge to move back and forth, back and forth …

But best of all is the giant, roofed sandbox, complete with sand toys such as trucks and buckets. “You would think, ooh, how does that stay clean?” she asks — but it does. And the whole place is fenced in. “I don’t have to worry about my kids running.”

Yet the War Memorial Park playground in Sewickley has come along and topped it, Hendrickson believes. The former Upper St. Clair English teacher from Ben Avon says her favorite parts are the safety features, from the padded ground on up, as well as the fact that it naturally separates the older and younger kids. The older ones gravitate to the part with bigger slides, taller equipment and a couple of balance beams.

We asked local parents — and a Pittsburgh play expert — to pick their favorite spots for fooling around. They offered great recommendations for the rest of the summer, and far into the fall.

“When the weather is nice, South Park is the top pick,” says Neil Bucher, Bethel Park father of two-year-old Milo. The playgrounds there are numerous and nice, and black and gold — at least in one highly favored area. Besides enjoying the usual slides and climbs, the kids can watch the dogs in the nearby dog park, the ducks in the neighboring pond, and all the other animals in the park as well.

“I suppose South Park is our favorite because, with all the room, it’s never very crowded, at least during the week,” Bucher adds.

Karen Lynch-Schirra of Whitehall, who has experience entertaining grandkids from teens on down, agrees that the black and gold play area is boffo. “This playground has a dinosaur climbing wall, with a sliding board on the other side of the dino,” Lynch-Schirra says, plus a cave-like bottom where children can sit and play, and an imitation-rock climbing wall. The fence and gate surrounding the place is a “huge” plus, she adds. “This playground is big and bold and very entertaining.”

Part of the parent test for any playground, however, is finding someplace easy to park upon arrival, someplace shady to rest during the visit, and someplace besides a clump of trees to use for relief. This place gets points for its huge parking lot, she says, but demerits for skimping on benches, bowers and bathrooms (apart from port-a-potties).

Lynch-Shirra also recommends Wiltshire Park in Upper St. Clair. She recalls her grandkids Jeff and Jake as preteens finding the water-spouting seal statue there irresistible on a very hot day, and the park’s tiny stream, just a few inches deep, great for frogs. “The downside of Wiltshire Park is that there is not a restroom,” she says. “If there is one, it must be hidden.”

The old playground at the Children’s Institute is now more accessible as the Nimick Family Therapeutic Garden, which opened in June at the Institute’s facility at Shady and Northumberland. Suzanne Destfino of Squirrel Hill loves it for her own three-and-a-half-year old Ollie.

“It’s great for little ones, since it’s also built for wheelchairs and everything has a ramp,” Destfino says. “There’s a maze and activity station, which is really fun, and there are sound tunnels that actually work, which little ones and big ones alike enjoy.”

But she can’t help mentioning a much older Pittsburgh playground as another favorite: Blue Slide Park.

Officially Frick Parklet, off of Beechwood Boulevard, it’s a Burgh classic because of the long blue concrete slide, built into the hillside and painted the shimmering sheen of a sunny swimming pool. Aficionados know to bring cardboard or even a plastic milk crate to make the slide work at warp speed.

“We tend to go there mostly when we need to exercise the pooch,” Destfino says, sounding sheepish. “One of us stays with the kid and the other one takes the dog to the off-leash area, which, by the way, is totally revamped, re-fenced, re-treed, and gorgeous.”

Re-treed? Points for dog bathrooms then.

Not every parent-tested playground is even a playground — or chosen for its playgroundedness.

In foul weather, after summer’s gone, Bucher takes his son to the Seesaw Center in Castle Shannon, a non-profit run from a church that charges a small fee. Hendrickson, of Belle Squeaks, says she uses the petting zoo at Soergel Orchards Family Farm Market in Wexford as a playground. Or she picks a new play area just to see the neighborhood. “It has to be interesting for me, too,” she says. “We go to a neighborhood I’ve never been to. I get to try a new café.”

What also distinguishes her favorite playgrounds, Hendrickson says, is that “they both have equipment for imaginative play.”

And that’s what a playground is ultimately all about, isn’t it? Occupying time and burning energy are just sidelights to the real function of goofing around: learning.

“If you watch young kids, when they approach a playground, they try everything once, then some sort of imaginative play happens,” says early childhood education consultant Ernie Dettore, director of the Play Academy at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. “A giant is chasing them, one of them is Captain America, something is a spaceship.

“Imaginative play lets them approach different ideas that they might want to pursue and problems they might want to resolve, in an alternative way,” he explains. They learn conflict resolution and to empathize with other kids’ perceptions. And they gain feelings of success and accomplishment.

Blue Slide Park just might do that the best, Dettore observes. “When kids go down that slide, it’s almost as if they look at it as a ski jump,” he says. A kid’s first pass will be standard, on his backside, then a little more adventurously on his side, and only then on his stomach, using increasingly more challenging strategies for dealing with the slide’s length. “It’s really interesting to see the success that they’ve registered.” When a slide is too short, he says, you’ll see kids manufacturing a fresh challenge — scrambling up the side of it, or trying to walk up the slide — just to create a new test of their abilities.

Do adults still have something to learn form playgrounds? Absolutely, says Dettore. That lesson is: relax. “We’re so caught up in our everyday lives,” he concludes, “that sometimes the concept of something spontaneous, or unstructured play, could relieve or reduce a lot of stress.”

Writer: Marty Levine

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Captions: Blueberry Hill; Sewickley War Memorial; Frick Park; Sewickley

Photographs copyright Clifton Page

Marty Levine