This article is part of Fatherly’s first annual 25 Best U.S. Cities For Kids to Play Outside. To read the full report, click here.
As playground expert Paige Johnson says, just because a playground is there doesn’t mean it provides kids, parents, or communities with meaningful opportunities for play. In this country, the local swings and slides are designed based on fear of lawyers first and penny pinching second. Actual kids-running-around-squealing-in-delight fun usually factors in after a few more logistical headaches are avoided. The result is a nation of mostly dull play spaces, which is all the more inexcusable when you see what a truly inspired playground looks like. These 11 masterpieces are among Johnson’s favorite playgrounds anywhere in the world, and cribbing just a few ideas from any of them would improve whatever you kid has access to. Now imagine a country that took play seriously enough to make them the standard (or, just go to Denmark, which pretty much already has).
Darling Quarter Playscape, SydneyTruly unique and functional playgrounds use custom pieces to make their surrounding landscapes playable. ASPECT Studios took that concept to the extreme by making a playground the centerpiece of Sydney’s Darling Harbor. Surrounded by cafes, restaurants, and commercial office space, the playspace incorporates nature elements like streams, hills, stylized boulders, and sand. Yes, it’s dirty and sticks to everything, but this is a list of great places to play, not great places to stay clean.
Kolle 37 Adventure Playground, Berlin, GermanyAmericans may have heard of “The Land,” a so-called “adventure playground” that received some press last year thanks to a documentary featuring little kids running around it with power tools. But The Land is a pretty lame example compared to the adventure playground mecca of Kolle 37, which has all the requisite shovels, hammers, saws, nails, and wood that make these places so terrifying to U.S. parents. But it also has pottery kilns, a blacksmith forge, rabbits, guinea pigs, gardens, and a bike rental shop where the older kids can work. Because it wouldn’t be Germany’s coolest playground if it wasn’t also its most industrious.
Parc De Belleville, Paris, FranceThe architects behind this wood and concrete climbing course built into a hillside wanted something “free-flowing and powerful,” an abstract playhouse that’s equal parts treehouse, forest, minimalist urban interior, living room fort, boat, and castle. From the top, parents can take in a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, or, you know, watch their kids. Laissez-faire and all that.
Woods Of Net, Hakone, JapanWoods Of Net is half playground, half permanent installation for artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s iconic hand-knit nets at the Hakone Open-Air Museum. From the outside, it looks like Willy Wonka got his hands on a set of Lincoln Logs. Inside, well, you can hardly tell inside from outside. Tezuka Architects describe it thusly: “The space attracts people like campfire. The children play inside of the net just as fire and parents sit around and lay on the woods.” American playgrounds could use more fire and parents sitting around laying on the woods, right?
Parque Gulliver, Valencia, SpainSet your kid loose in Parque Gulliver to run, jump, and climb all over a recreation of the most iconic scene from Gulliver’s Travels. Watching your kid scale this giant — complete with ropes, ladders, slides, nets, hidden steps to different levels, and a pair of enormous feet — should be a welcome change of pace from your crazy lilliputian using you as their personal jungle gym.
City Museum, St. Louis, MissouriAmerica might only have one representative on this list, but it’s arguably the one with the deepest roots in the urban environment it inhabits. This 600,000 square-foot playground is housed in a former International Shoe Company and made entirely out of reclaimed materials from within the city’s borders, so your kid can climb an old construction crane or, with apologies to George Carlin, get on a plane. Actually, they can get on one of 2 planes — this place is insane.
Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, JapanYou know what kids get tired of real quick? Prefab plastic slides. You know what keeps their attention? Climbable pyramids and rock dragons, and a fog forest that rolls in and out every 15 minutes, and marshmallow-like jumping mounds where bare feet are required. What? You don’t have one of those down the street?
Schulberg Playground, Wiesbaden, GermanyThe pentagon shape of the climbing net that surrounds this play space references the shape of the historic city it inhabits, while its construction complements the local architecture and winds through existing trees. All of which is to say it’s markedly different from the penned-in, “play here, not there” space of your local playground.
Nishi Rokugo Koen Tire Park, Tokyo, JapanYou might have had a tire swing, but the kids in Tokyo have a tire Godzilla, tire robot, and tire spaceship. And yeah, a couple of tire swings — 3,000 tires go a long way.
Tumbling Bay Playground, London, United KingdomRather than let the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park rot away after the 2012 games left town, Land Use Consultants and Erect Architecture devised a way for a new kind of park to grow out of the ruins. That’s a highfalutin way of saying the swings don’t have to hang from your standard metal A-frame. Another thing you’ll notice: lots and lots of grass, which somehow is considered an unsafe playground surface here on the other side of the pond.
Faelledparken, Copenhagen, DenmarkThis list would have been completely invalid if it didn’t include at least one Monstrum playground, and at this point, might as well go big with one made entirely of rooftops. The space invites kids to go Spiderman all over replicas of Copenhagen’s most famous buildings and features a lookout platform, mini planetarium, and playable church bells.