Who hasn’t hovered by a play structure or told their kids not to climb too high? No parent wants to see their child get hurt. But research shows that child-directed play—when kids get to imagine and create on their own and take risks—fosters their cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills. Between letting kids push their boundaries and keeping them safe, it can be hard to find that balance. These 10 adventure parks and experiences across North America make it a little easier (while also being incredibly fun).
1. City Museum
Closed shoes and a flashlight are suggested at City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. What was once a shoe warehouse is now a massive playground for children (and adults who want to explore like children), with enchanted caves, a treehouse, a ferris wheel and an epic 10-storey slide. City Museum offers programs throughout the year for homeschoolers and boy and girl scouts, as well as overnight stays at the museum for children 16 and under.
2. Terra Nova Adventure Play Environment
Instead of using off-the-shelf plastic products, the playground equipment at this Richmond, BC, park is made from yellow cedar. But the real draws here are a 35-metre zip line, twisting stainless steel slide, rope walkway and climbing wall. The playground is suitable for kids ages two and up.
9 great Toronto playgrounds
3. Imagination Playground
American architect David Rockwell came up with a creative (and inexpensive) way to build a portable playground: a series of modular pieces that kids can assemble themselves. At the end of the day, it can be disassembled and stored in a large box. That way, play structures can morph into different shapes every day, depending on the whims of the kids playing on them. You can go to custom play spaces that use Rockwell’s Imagination Playground at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose in California, Imagination Playground Park in New York and the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, as well as Spain, Turkey, Thailand and Japan.
4. Nature Nut Kids’ Club
Have your child discover the greener side of Toronto at Evergreen Bricks Works in Toronto’s Don River Valley. Different programs throughout the year offer kids the chance to track animals, build forts, eat wild edibles and bike trails.
Kids can run wild at this 50,000-square-foot paradise for kids on Governors Island in New York. In fact, parents aren’t allowed inside. Kids can build forts, play on tire swings and generally do whatever they like. Tools and materials, such as hammers, nails, saws, wood, paint, fabric and tires, are supplied.
6. Huntington Central Park
This adventure playground in Orange County, California, lets kids be kids. They can raft on a small pond, go down a mudslide and build forts. The park is opened Monday to Saturday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but all kids must stop play at 3:40 p.m. to help clean up. (The playground is always looking for wood donations that kids can use to build treehouse structures.)
7. Ithaca Children’s Garden
There are beehives, a kids’ kitchen and a rice paddy in this three-acre garden in Ithaca, New York. But one of the most coveted parts of the park is the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, where kids are encouraged to dig for worms, climb trees and get dirty. Children ages three to 12 are challenged to create their own play experiences during the garden’s summer camps, after-school programs and field trips.
8. Variety Heritage Adventure Park
This Winnipeg park was designed to encourage imaginative play in children of all abilities while introducing a bit of Canadian history. Kids can play in facsimiles of a Northwest Territories trading post, learn about First Nations beadwork or play on a steamboat. The park is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. throughout the summer.
9. Arbraska Rigaud Park
In the forest near Rigaud, Quebec, kids ages five and up can explore adventure trails, complete with suspended bridges, Tarzan swings, balance logs and zip lines. The nearby Arbre-en-Ciel Village offers a network of treehouses, tunnels and slides.
10. Jamie Bell Adventure Park
Located in Toronto’s High Park, this traditional playground was built not only for children but also with children. As one of the largest playgrounds in Ontario, it may have similar features to regular parks—swings, slides, climbing ropes and more—but it sure doesn’t look like one. With turrets and lookout towers, this castle-like structure allows your kid to dream big.
This story is a part of Let Them Play, a project examining kids and independence by Today’s Parent and Maclean’s.