Union Square Wonderland

Map by Jason Lee

The beautiful, brand-new 15,000-square-foot kiddie Shangri-la pictured here has instantly raised the playground bar citywide. It’s the result of a year and a half of construction, approximately $3.8 million, and seemingly endless consultations with learning experts, botanists (to make sure the plants wouldn’t be poisonous), and neighborhood parents. Here, its fifteen coolest features.

Swinging and spiraling on the SofSurfaces rubber tiles.Photo: Hannah Whitaker; coat by Bonpoint; dress by Crazy 8; beret by Janie and Jack

1. Scrape-proof flooring.
Most city parks are covered in skin-scuffing asphalt. The checkerboard flooring here is interlocking SofSurfaces rubber tiles, which cushion tumbles and also efficiently drain rainwater.

2. All those trees!
Nature makes kids smarter. That’s essentially what Matthew Urbanski, a principal at the landscape-architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, learned when he consulted with cognitive-development experts at North Carolina State University. Instead of simply lining the periphery with planters, the firm dotted the playground with Japanese cryptomeria, a skinny evergreen, to “provide a more complex layout for imaginative play,” says Urbanski. “Kids can imagine it’s a forest.”

3. The shiny silver mini-mountain.
This metal dome—the only one of its kind in the city—was molded by a silo manufacturer. “On the day the park opened, kids weren’t sure how to climb it,” says Union Square Partnership’s executive director, Jennifer Falk. “By the second day, I saw every kid on top.”

4. The tunnel.
It’s recycled, in a way: The tubular slide’s steps are made of boulders carted down from upstate.

5. A walk in the (sort of) woods.
Another hit of nature: a wooden path adjacent to the tube slide lined with American smoke, sumac, and redwood trees that look almost prehistoric. “We call this area ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” Urbanski says.

6. For the littlest ones.
The western section is a designated toddler area. The sandbox has a water-play ledge and fountain to make mud pies (and to wash hands post-play).

7. Beyond monkey bars.
The climbing options include futuristic structures like the Spirallo and the helix-shaped Pulsar. Life-size “cattails,” essentially bendy metal poles, let kids sway finchlike in the breeze.

8. Multiple spinning options.
Kids can get dizzy in the Nest (a kind of futuristic spinning teacup), let their body weight propel them on the angled Dish, or use the Icarus, a swing carousel.

9. “Psst! You, across the park … ”
Whisper something into one talk tube, and a person standing in front of the same colored tube on the opposite side of the park can hear it.

10. Summer showers.
The area in front of the pavilion will turn into a miniature water park with a fountain and misters as soon as the weather warms.

11. Undisturbed petals.
To protect delicate perennials from stomping, the designers strung up virtually invisible stainless-steel netting, originally developed for zoos.

12. Supplement the Greenmarket.
It’s still a ways away from opening—officials just began soliciting proposals for a vendor this month—but eventually the Italianate pavilion behind what used to be Luna Park restaurant will hold a concession.

13. A break for Mom.
The perimeter of the Tot Lot is lined with slatted wood benches for grown-up minders. The stone steps across from the pavilion will likely get used as stadium seating as well.

14. Shady acres.
The seating area and the sides of the pavilion are planted with saucer magnolias, whose pink flowers bloom dramatically in early spring.

15. The bathrooms.
They’re not open yet, but by early spring there’ll be separate men’s and women’s restrooms and a family restroom accessible only from the playground.

Union Square Wonderland