If there's one thing that parents learn quickly, it's the cardboard-box rule. As in, the packaging for a new toy can be as entertaining as the toy itself. I find that traveling with young kids follows a similar logic. You can do all the museums, monuments, churches, and castles in the world, but what kids really want is a place in which to run around like they do at home. So to aid in that quest, here are my recommendations for small-people spaces in big-city places—namely, adventuresome playgrounds that will stand in for that well-worn play area at your neighborhood school or park.
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: One of America's cherished outdoor spaces, 50-acre Boston Common has been used for everything from cattle grazing to public hangings. Beyond its Freedom Trail history, the Common includes a wading and ice-skating area at Frog Pond and the ever-popular Tadpole Playground nearby.
The Insider Pick: More than just a patch of trees and grass, Southwest Corridor Park stretches almost five miles from Back Bay to Forest Hills, connecting the neighborhoods of South End, Back Bay, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain. Within its 52-acre bounds you'll find a string of seven playgrounds geared toward different ages and abilities. As a Boston friend notes, "You can do a playground crawl instead of a pub crawl."
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: Chicago's Grant Park and the Lake Michigan shoreline are essentially the city's front garden. Head to the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park to splash around the wading pools and waterfalls and to watch the faces on the video-tower installations spout water.
The Insider Pick: Head up to the West Ridge neighborhood north of the Loop to enjoy Indian Boundary Park, which features a duck lagoon, small petting zoo, spray park, sandbox, and an awesome wooden play structure resembling a castle.
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: City Park is a 330-acre swath of green in a city that idolizes its green spaces. Home to the Denver Zoo, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, two lakes, trails, a boathouse, and numerous free events and outdoor concerts, this is the natural—literally—choice for a grand day out.
The Insider Pick: Westlands Park has picked up accolades from Landscape Architecture magazine, The Denver Post, and 5280 magazine, both for its innovative layout as well as three age-specific play areas that include everything from sandboxes and swings to climbing walls and an in-line hockey rink.
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: Yup, you guessed it, Central Park is one massive playground for Manhattan's knee-high city slickers. Take your pick from the zoo, free outdoor concerts, horse-drawn carriage rides, and 21 playgrounds, many of which feature fountains and spray areas.
The Insider Pick: The inaugural Imagination Playground Park is set to open in Lower Manhattan's Burling Slip neighborhood at the end of this month, offering an innovative and immersive playground "experience" that will include masts, pulleys, buckets, and "Playground in a Box" kits with foam noodles, blocks, and other hands-on equipment for free-form play.
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: Young ones will hardly care as they cruise the five themed trails at Phoenix's Desert Botanical Garden, but parents will appreciate strolling amidst more than 50,000 desert plants in sections dedicated to topics such as conservation, desert living, the plants and people of the Sonoran Desert, and desert wildflowers. Family activities include weekend Kids Corner programs and evening flashlight tours.
The Insider Pick: Not only does it boast two playgrounds, Scottsdale's McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park offers rides on the Paradise and Pacific Railroad as well as old-school carousel (children under three ride free with a paying adult). Park admission is free, too, though note it's closed June through September when summer temperatures in the desert hit triple figures.
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: Golden Gate Park edges the Presidio for its proximity to attractions such as the de Young Museum and San Francisco Botanical Garden, worth a visit in their own right. The thousand-acre urban oasis also features trails, several lakes (including Spreckels, where you can watch the boats of the San Francisco Model Yacht Club), and even a bison paddock.
The Insider Pick: Berkeley's Adventure Playground delivers what it says on the box: namely, a fully immersive adventure that roams through, up, and over a literal junkyard of kid-designed forts, boats, ramps, and a zip-line. Build, hammer, saw, dig, and paint in a space that devotes itself to letting children play in the "rubble," a philosophy adopted through a playground designer who observed engrossed children at play in the ruins of post-WWII cities like London.
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: In a place defined by water, 259-acre Green Lake and Green Lake Park, located north of downtown, beckons on the map like a shimmering plunge pool. Here, you'll find the excellent Woodland Park Zoo as well as a sizeable playground, wading pool, "beach" area, and several miles of paved walking and biking paths around the lake.
The Insider Pick: If you're looking for a great view, try tiny Kerry Park, the free alternative to shelling out for the observation deck of the Space Needle. A small playground here means parents can savor the picture-postcard views of the Space Needle, downtown, and (weather permitting) Mount Rainier, while the tots swing and slide to their hearts' content.
The Obvious Outdoor Icon: Without question, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is the United States' public playground, with loads of open space for tourists, and kids in particular, to roam. There's not much here in terms of specific play features, but you've got leafy areas for picnics, a carousel, paddleboats on the Tidal Basin, and lots of biking and walking trails. The National Gallery of Art's outdoor sculpture garden is a fun spot for free summer jazz concerts, as well as winter ice-skating.
The Insider Pick: Clemyjontri Park is an wide-open play area with bright play structures, swings, slides, and mazes that's designed so that children of all physical abilities can play together. It's located in McLean, Virginia, near the CIA headquarters on 18 acres of land donated by a local family, so you'll need a car to get here. There's also a vintage carousel that operates weekends April through November and weekdays during the summer. (Note: bring water, hats, and sunscreen in summer, as there's not much natural shade!)
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