When you have kids under a certain age, you tend to spend a great deal of time at playgrounds. It's a perfect mid-day diversion... the kids gets to run wild, everyone gets some fresh air, and when it's done you feel you've all "earned" an ice cream. With all that time to sit and contemplate your surroundings each time, it's natural that many parents begin to form opinions about what makes a good playground. Here are some of our favorite playgrounds from our travels, and more importantly, why we liked them so much...
Mt Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park, Mt Pleasant, SC
What makes this Charleston-area playground especially nice is that it sits under the Ravenel Bridge, which provides shade and a sweeping view overhead, and turns what would normally be "no man's land" under an overpass into a vibrant place for families. Bonus points for TWO covered twisty slides. Those things rock.
Mary Bartleme Park, Chicago IL
This new playground and park sits in Greektown in Chicago, and has fun angles and banks that beg kids to run through it full-tilt. Plenty of climbing structures, some young shade trees around the edges which will improve with time, and it's a short distance ride from the fantastic Haymarket Pub & Brewery. I can't be the only one who sees that as a big perk.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn NY
This is a spectacular new development of waterfront property in Brooklyn looking at Manhattan, and it's brimming with playground space, walking paths, shade trees, and this soaring pedestrian bridge. Million dollar views, free to everyone.
MonstroCity / City Museum, St. Louis MO
City Museum is almost too wonderful and bizarre to describe - a tall downtown building that's been turned into a massive indoor exploration and play structure, full of art and physical activities. Their outdoor space (called MonstroCity) is equally incredible, with custom-made tubes of steel rebar, airplane hulls, an outdoor fire pit, a ball pit, a huge covered tube slide... stop reading this and go there now. And plan on spending at least 4 hours in this place. AT LEAST.
Teardrop Park, Manhattan NYC
We loved this park for its convincingly wooded setting, made all the more incredible given its location in between several sky scrapers in lower Manhattan. You squeeze behind two of the buildings and POOF, you're in the Adirondacks.
Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison WI
THIS... is how you make a play structure. Look at this thing. There's no question about it - you're going to climb through it too. And that's what a compelling play space should be like... I should be unable to resist it, even as an adult. I want to be captivated.
Scott Carpenter Park, Boulder CO
Excellent use of steel tubing to create something memorable, and located right on one of their gazillion cycle tracks, so it doesn't get much easier to visit by bike. And yes, I climbed it too. Of course I did... it's a giant rocket.
Irving Park, Portland OR
Portland had a million great little playgrounds tucked among the towering trees, but we loved visiting this one several times during our stay, mainly due to the water features, which made short work of hot days.
Portland Zoo Playground, Portland OR
This was a sprawling, shaded playground full of other happy kids to play with, set amongst the wooded paths next to the Portland Zoo, and it was just delightful. There's something for the little ones to do, along with the bigger, more athletic kids. There's plenty of shade and benches, and when you're done, the Zoo and the Rose Gardens are right next door.
Piedmont Park Public Pool / Playground, Atlanta GA
I had to find an aerial shot for this one. The pool is amazing (though the line to get in can get long), and the playground behind it is a particularly good one with tons of shade. All of this is set in majestic Piedmont Park in the middle of Atlanta, and it makes for a perfect family day outdoors.
Parc la Fontaine, Montreal, Canada
It wasn't easy for me to find a picture that does this park justice. We visited it back before I cared about having a good camera, and even then I recall "No Cameras" notices for the pool, which brings me to the point: It's a seriously big, fun playground, next to a public kiddie pool, set in a massive park. Think of it as the Canadian version of the Atlanta playground above.
Maggie Daley Park, Chicago IL
This 20 acre park and playground space just opened in December 2014, so there are precious few real images of it, which means we have to settle for the architectural renderings, which unfortunately look a bit like an over-baked children's cartoon. But the plans are incredible, with a lengthy, snaking ice skating rink and a climbing structure, on top of what promises to be a pretty magical set of playgrounds. Kudos to Chicago for doubling down on world-class public space for families.
Stanley Park, Vancouver BC
Our favorite playground in Vancouver from among many excellent choices features a massive, hollow stump of one of the original old-growth trees that were cut down to build the city. There is also the usual compliment of diverse structures, and plenty of shade. And of course it's on the cycle track network, because Vancouver.
Esplanade Playground, Boston MA
There are actually several playgrounds along the Esplanade, but Google Maps doesn't know they exist. But we do, which is why you need us. :) This particular playground is just south west of the Hatch Shell, and is probably the best playground in Boston. It has a zip line, a mini fake mountain to climb, and one of those towering spiderweb-like climbing structures made of delightfully solid German rope and steel that could go through a nuclear blast still come out looking clean, dignified, and modern. The Germans don't build crap.
The only people who enjoy 100% safe, boring playgrounds are lawyers and insurance actuaries... We like play structures that are daring and inspirational. It should be possible to hurt yourself on some of the structures, because without risk, there is usually no fun. So our favorites always incorporate elements with height, or fast slides, or climbing ropes, or other structures that challenge kids to use their brains AND their muscles, to take chances, and to revel in their successes. Once in awhile it means a bumped noggin or a skinned knee, but it's a trade off we wouldn't give up, and we dare say our daughter wouldn't either. We also crave beautiful or novel settings, and shade, and benches to sit on, and drinking fountains, and near-by food. Free wifi and a brewery close by are always immensely welcome, as well.