Americans have a weight problem, our children included. About one in three American kids is considered overweight or obese, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), putting them at risk for a variety of health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
A study published in the October 2008 issue of the "American Journal of Public Health" found that kids living about a half mile (1 km) from a playground are nearly five times more likely to be a healthy weight than kids without a playground or park in their neighborhood. Most American children, however, are more likely to spend their hours playing video games, watching TV, or using computers or cell phones -- an average of 7 1/2 hours a day, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation -- than they are being physically active.
And the state of play inside our schools isn't faring much better. A study published in the January 2009 issue of "Pediatrics" found that kids who participated in a minimum of 15 minutes of recess every day had fewer behavior issues in the classroom. Sounds simple enough, but one out of three third graders had either no recess at all or less than 15 minutes a day.
Here we've collected twenty cool playgrounds across the United States. What makes them cool? Everything from the design of the playground equipment to how eco-friendly they are. The CDC recommends that kids get 60 minutes of daily exercise to achieve and maintain a healthy weight (and adults too!), but we figure 60 minutes is the minimum you'll want to spend when you visit these play spaces.
Imagination Playground in a Box
How many times have you bought a kid a present only to find him more interested in the packaging than in the toy? Imagination Playground in a Box is a wink and a nod to those of us who know that kids don't always need toys that are more high tech than our home computer.
Architect David Rockwell designed Imagination Playground with the idea of free play in mind. The playgrounds use foam blocks, water, sand as well as found objects and loose parts. Instead of swings and slides, kids configure their own play space using the available materials and the
environment around them, learning not only how to explore their own creativity but also how to cooperate.
The Rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens (San Francisco, Calif.)
On top of the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco is the Yerba Buena Rooftop Playground. Most of this playground is a giant rubber pit, great for bouncing, but that's only one of the many things that make this playground cool. The rooftop playground also has 25-foot tube slide (for tunneling or sliding, whatever mood strikes you), a play circle with a xylophone, a labyrinth of hedges (child-sized) as well as sand and water elements.
And when you've worn out the playground itself, move on to the butterfly garden, the 1906 carousel, the bowling alley, the NHL-sized ice-skating rink or the Zeum arts and technology center, a hands-on museum especially for kids. And it's all located in the middle of the beautiful Yerba Buena Gardens.
Clemyjontri Park (McLean, Va.)
Clemyjontri Park is a colorful, 18-acre playground built with all kids in mind. It's the largest outdoor play space built where able-bodied and disabled kids can play side-by-side. The playground is divided into four sections called outdoor "rooms."
The "Fitness and Fun" quad is set up for track and field play. The "Movin' and Groovin' Transportation Area" is a play road, designed for kids with mobility and support equipment (wheelchairs and walkers) to practice their balance and movement. The "Schoolhouse and Maze Room" is stocked with educational games, while the "Rainbow Room" is a more traditional playground setup with swings and other equipment to challenge kids both physically and mentally. Clemyjontri also includes special areas of the park for kids who have special needs, including problems with social interactions and noise sensitivity issues.
The park also features a carousel, built in the center of the grounds and designed so kids who use mobility and support equipment or who have a sensory or developmental disability can also join in the fun, unrestricted.
Powell Barnett Playground (Seattle, Wash.)
Powell Barnett Park in Seattle, Wash., is divided into two sections, one for little kids (ages 2 to 5) and another area for the older set. The park features a variety of spinning and bouncing equipment as well as elaborate climbing structures -- including a giant red spider web made out of rope. For the older kids, there's a full-size basketball court. And for the little ones -- don't miss the tricycle maze and the wading pool (summer only).
Another cool feature? Believe it or not, it's the restrooms. Powell Barnett Park's restrooms are located in a castle-shaped building next to the play space, and are ADA accessible.
Adventure Playground (Berkeley, Calif.)
There's truth in advertising when it comes to Adventure Playground in Berkeley, Calif., -- this playground truly is an adventure. Kids visiting this playground should be prepared to build things: The play space is filled with plywood and board buildings (shanties, boats, forts, towers, bridges, you name it) that were constructed by kids with supervision, of course. Kids (and their parents) can check out real tools -- hammers, saws and nails or paint and brushes or bring their own -- and get to work as carpenters.
It's not all about tools and hammering, though. There's a suspended tire climbing structure, and did we mention the zip line? Smack in the middle of the playground is a zip line -- slide on down and a pile of sand is waiting to catch you.
Koret Children's Quarter (San Francisco, Calif.)
Warning: Adults may not enter the playground unless accompanied by a child. If that sign doesn't say it all … well, it says most of it. Koret Children's Quarter in San Francisco is one of the best urban playgrounds ever. Its concrete slide (you slide down on a piece of cardboard) and 3-dimensional rope climbing structure up its cool factor, as does its restored 1912 carousel. The playground is designed with areas for both little and big kids, and has swings, slides, monkey bars, a rope bridge, sand pits and a wave area.
Koret Children's Quarter is considered one of America's oldest playgrounds. It was renovated in 2007.
East Dock Playground (Bayfield, Wis.)
East Dock Playground overlooks Lake Superior, but with all its awesome playground equipment, you may not notice the water views -- unless you're jumping off rocks into the water, of course. One of the coolest features of the playground is a climbing structure that's made from tires and is designed to look like a dragon. There's also a zip line, twisted slide, monkey bars and, if you're there at dusk, telescopes.
One corner of the grounds is designed with little kids (ages 2 to 5) in mind. It features a climbing structure built to look like a ship with a sandbox below it.
Kellogg Park (New Orleans, La.)
Kellogg Park is the most technologically advanced playground in the United States (and in all of North America). It's a "pocket playground," a mini playground tucked into the Make It Right Foundation development of 150 new homes in the post-Hurricane Katrina Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. It is the first of its kind in America: A solar-powered, environmentally friendly playground built with supplies from local businesses and landscaped with native greenery. Materials are all non-toxic, recyclable and sustainable. Kellogg Park emphasizes not only mental and physical activities, but also aims to stimulate kids into thinking about their local ecology.
Teardrop Park (New York, N.Y.)
Teardrop Park is a green oasis in New York City's Battery Park City, and is one of those special spaces that many locals don't even know about.
The park's grounds offer lush greens and interesting geologic formations, including rock seats in the reading area. The park displays artwork by Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil, and there's a bluestone ice / water wall that divides the park between a grassy side and the play areas. The playgrounds feature a large, metal slide, as well as water and sand elements (sand pits and boxes) inspired by the Hudson River Valley.
Finan Family Playground (Nashville, Tenn.)
The Finan Family Playground is located in Nashville, Tenn., at Vanderbilt University's Susan Gray School for Children, a school for special needs kids.
The playground was conceived by an undergraduate student attending Vanderbilt. , Kelly Finan, who realized that the students at the Susan Gray School who used wheelchairs weren't able to play on the playground. Her vision of a barrier-free, fully ADA accessible play space came to fruition in 2009. The playground, for kids ages 3 to 5, offers wheelchair-accessible swings, motor-skill learning centers, a fort, rockers and garden boxes.
The Finan Family Playground serves not only as a play space for all kids, but also as an outdoor classroom.
imPOSSIBLE DREAM Playground (Warwick, R.I.)
The imPOSSIBLE DREAM Playground is the first ADA-accessible playground in the state of Rhode Island, fulfilling the dream of kids with disabilities or limitations to play side-by-side their able-bodied peers. Built by the imPOSSIBLE DREAM, inc., a non-profit group that grants dreams to chronically ill kids suffering from physical and/or emotional illness, the playground is part of John D. Florio Memorial Park.
The playground has the basics like swings, slides, seesaws and sand boxes. But it also offers miniature golf, fantasy playhouses, an old-fashioned train station (as a rest area) and a koi fishpond surrounded by animal statues and fountains.
Note that the playground has limited hours: It's open during April through October, Wednesday through Sunday.
Warren G. Magnuson Park (Seattle, Wash.)
Warren G. Magnuson Park in Seattle is a former Naval facility that now offers not only beautiful green space, views of Mount Rainer, Lake Washington and the Cascades, community gardens and great places for kite flying (35-foot Kite Hill) but also has a cool playground for kids. It's especially great if your kids like to climb. The Junior League of Seattle Playground has more climbing structures than any other play space in Seattle. Climbers of all skill levels are welcome, including toddlers who can try scaling the toddler-scaled structure.
Also, for those out there with fur-babies, Magnuson Park is a popular spot for off-leash dog romping.
Kamakana Children's Playground at Harold Higashihara Park (Kona, Hawaii)
Kamakana Playground at Harold Higashihara Park on The Big Island is known as one of the best play spaces in Hawaii. Want to scale a life-size whale? Look no further than Kamakana Playground. The grounds also offer a Kona Sugar Company 1897 model train, a replica of a Polynesian sailing ship for climbing and tunneling, wooden turrets for climbing, a drawbridge and ring toss games, as well as a separate play area sized for little kids, ages 2 to 5. And for brain play, check out the chess tables with boards built into the rock.
Take note that the Kamakana Playground is currently closed for renovations. Not only will the park be renovated for wear and tear and to bring it into compliance with ADA standards, but look for a 20-foot zip line when it reopens.
Douglas Park (Santa Monica, Calif.)
Santa Monica's Douglas Park used to be a reservoir, and if you're not looking closely you may not see the playground beyond the bocce grounds. The park, which is the size of a city block, is filled with ponds and streams. The playground caters to the little kid crowd. It's surrounded by sand and the playground equipment includes everything from tire swings and seesaws to climbing structures. The playground also has a large open space used for skate boarding, bike or tricycle riding in the winter and a water park in the summer months.
Moose Trails Playground (Red Lodge, Mont.)
Red Lodge, Mont., is the gateway to Yellowstone Park, but it's in Lion's Club Park where you'll find the Moose Trails Playground. Moose Trails is split into two age-appropriate play spaces: The playground is for kids ages 5 to 12 and there's a tot lot for the little ones. Moose Trails has a variety of slides, including a double slide and a tube slide, an impressive rock climbing wall, a wooden teepee, a train tunnel, a musical area and areas to showcase public art.
The greater park also offers horseshoe pits, sand volleyball courts, basketball courts, and in the wintertime, has a skating rink.
Alexander W. Kemp Playground (Cambridge, Mass.)
The Alexander W. Kemp Playground in Cambridge, Mass., is a newly renovated play space located in the center of Cambridge Common.
The new playground is based on the idea of free play, creating opportunities for kids to follow their imaginations. Enter through its tall iron gates and you'll find nine interconnected play spaces, all ADA accessible and full of age-appropriate playground equipment (for ages 2 to 12). The playground is a series of hills and valleys with sand, branches and other loose organic material such as giant wooden blocks to encourage building, and is built with reclaimed wood and other eco-friendly materials.
There are climbing nets, wooden dragon boats, fountains, swings, slides carved into hills, a seesaw designed for multiple kids to use together and a special ground-level carousel-like round-a-bout for kids who use wheelchairs (and their able-bodied friends).
High Line (New York, N.Y.)
The High Line is less of a playground and more of a play space -- it's a park that will, when complete, span New York City's West Side neighborhoods, from the Meatpacking District through West Chelsea and Clinton/Hell's Kitchen.
The High Line is a great example of how an old space -- in this instance, an abandoned elevated train line -- can be transformed into a cool play space, for kids, adults and families, in the middle of a busy urban environment. Because it's on the site of an old elevated train track, the public park is 30 feet above ground. Its design is a combination of organic materials and concrete, a mix of urban and natural surroundings. The High Line is also an outdoor classroom, offering elementary level, year-round programs in nature, history and design as well as curriculum-enriching guides for inside the classroom.
La Laguna Playground (San Gabriel, Calif.)
La Laguna Playground goes by several names: You may know it as La Laguna Playground or "Dragon Park," "Dinosaur Park," or "Monster Park." It dates back to the 1960s, when the sand-filled lagoon featuring fourteen life-size concrete sea creatures was designed and built in Vincent Lugo Park by Mexican concrete artist Benjamin Dominguez.
In 2006, demolition threatened the play space but the non-profit preservation group Friends of La Laguna formed to save it. Today, it's a symbol of pride for San Gabriel's Chicano heritage, holds a spot on San Gabriel's list of historic places and is the only post-World War II playground to be included in the California Register of Historical Resources.
Union Square Park Playground (New York, N.Y.)
The 15,000 square-foot Union Square Park Playground opened at the end of 2009 and looks nothing like any other play space in New York City. It is divided into three sections, all outdoors, and each featuring different play equipment for different age groups. The playground combines traditional play equipment such as swings, climbing structures, sand pits with features such as a giant geodesic silver dome, spinning rides -- one spinning teacup is called The Nest -- and a water area. The new park also has gardens and greenery, and Union Square is home to the largest green market in NYC.
Play space at YMCA Camp H.R. Erdman (Waialua, HI)
In the last 14 years, KaBOOM!, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., has helped to bring play spaces to more than 3 million kids across the U.S. and plans to deliver spaces to another one million children this year. The new playground at YMCA Camp H.R. Erdman in Waialua, Hawaii, is a 29,000-square-foot space designed by kids from the camp and surrounding area and constructed with the help of KaBOOM! and community volunteers.
The playground is a Nature Built playground, which means it's a natural playground that features the natural, native elements of the area. This play space uses reclaimed wood and recycled tires in its equipment, has a boulder garden (which makes a cool climbing structure), a slide that follows the contours of the hill it is built into, a maze created from native vegetation, an edible forest of native plants and it features an Imagination Playground in a Box. There is also an outdoor classroom, but the playground itself serves as a sustainable-building teaching tool for all who visit it.
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