Spraygrounds bring summer joy, for less money and with less effort than pools

A girl leaps in the fountains at Dilworth Park near City Hall on Saturday, July 15, 2017.

The simple summertime joy of the backyard sprinkler, without the grass stains, is the appeal of Philadelphia’s spraygrounds. The city might be better known for its public pools, but it’s our 100-some free, water-park-inspired play spaces that are increasingly visible.

“Philly has this great history of swimming. We have more pools per capita [approximately 73] than any other city,” said Parks and Recreation commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “But we can’t have pools at every rec center or in every neighborhood.”

Spraygrounds, however, “are great fun for kids, without the costs or the maintenance of pools,” she said.

What kind of fun? How about getting drenched by overhead buckets at Brewerytown’s Athletic Recreation Center? Or soaking in the mists of tall, faux palm trees at 48th and Woodland or at Smith in West Passyunk?

Even old-fashioned water features — those vintage, spout-mouthed concrete seals or single poles that spray in a circle — can be a big deal to a person who hasn’t yet hit double digits.

Mander Playground’s sprayground, on the edge of Strawberry Mansion, was built for about $175,000. It features curvy, modern spray posts that have proved highly popular with neighborhood children, according to Ott Lovell.

Newer spraygrounds, like one at Shissler Recreation Center in Fishtown, are on timers, so water isn’t wasted — and guests get the thrill of pushing a button every 10 minutes or so. (In case it’s been a while: Pushing buttons is also a pretty big deal to the fairly little.)

Like Philly’s public pools, spraygrounds are free to enter. They’re officially open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, though rec center leaders can expand hours at their discretion.

Philadelphia’s best-known — or, at least, most-visible — sprayground isn’t city-run. It’s in Dilworth Park, on the west side of City Hall, operated by the Center City District.

There, far beneath the stern gaze of William Penn, several dozen jets randomly spout out of the ground. The spectacle attracts all manner of interested pint-size parties, who strain against buckled stroller belts and escape chaperones’ clutches to take to the water, with little to no regard for clothing, shoes, hair, or accessories.

On a hot day, grown-ups fill the benches and cafe tables around the fountain perimeter, enjoying a moment of respite before they have to figure out how to dry off their soggy kids.

As with all Philly spraygrounds (and pools, for that matter), Dilworth’s flowing waters are recirculated — and are not safe to drink.

What is safe? “Swimming” at Sister Cities Park, the Center City District’s other splashy operation. Across the street from the Cathedral Basilica, a pebble-bottom pond originally intended for sailing toy boats has become a lovely little wading pool — complete with a lifeguard watching over from a tall perch. (Rescues are few and far between, but the guard has been known to intervene in the event of too much splashing.)

With its mini-pool, man-made garden hill, compact version of Dilworth Park’s ground jets, lively cafe, and storage cubby for play shoes, Sister Cities is widely regarded at the Philly sprayground gold standard.

Still, it’s not the favorite of Ott Lovell’s, who knows each space inside and out.

“I think the coolest is Herron,” she said. The Pennsport park has pretty much every water feature you can think of — except a pool.

The variety of features at every new sprayground depends on each neighborhood’s resources. Some community groups — like at Fishtown’s Shissler and Washington Square West’s Seger Park — raise enough money to customize their water features.

Parks and Rec doesn’t keep track of how many people visit its spraygrounds, as it does with pools. But the organization does pay attention to social-media traffic, and Ott Lovell reported that the Junod Playground near Mechanicsville Road in the Northeast is trending this summer.

As for coming projects? Next spring, a play-in water feature will debut at JFK Plaza. Ott Lovell described it as a “big jet fountain with a really cool basket weave of spray that you can run through.”

Von Colln Memorial Field, across from Eakins Oval, will get a spray park, too. Construction hasn’t yet begun, but Ott Lovell promises it’s going to be a big deal.

You can take her word for it. She’s not only in charge of pretty much all of Philly’s water-filled play parks, she’s also a mother of two.

She’s candid about the challenges a pool can pose to someone with a young child or two.

“To bring my 3-year-old to the pool is an ordeal. It is an ordeal,” she said.

But when they head out to a sprayground? “A change of clothes and a towel, and we’re there.”