Living in the City of Parks & Playgrounds

The author’s daughters happily perched at Glenwood Children’s Park.

The author’s daughters happily perched at Glenwood Children’s Park.

It is such a pleasure to welcome fabulous guest blogger, Jessica Becker, to introduce our readers to her exciting project, Madison Playground Review. Jessica is a community outreach professional raising two daughters with her husband in an old house on the isthmus. She wakes early to practice yoga, she cooks dinner for her family, bikes most places she goes, and believes that happiness is a life skill!

 

Parks (and if you have kids, playgrounds) are nice to have nearby. When thinking about where to live, it may not be on your ‘non-negotiable’ list, but over the long haul, it will probably affect your quality of life quite a bit.

Madison has more parks and playgrounds per person than any other city in the United States, by far. There is not a close runner-up. It is too rarely mentioned, in my opinion, as part of the ongoing conversation about why this is such a lovely place to live.

Having all these parks and playgrounds to maintain is a big job. The Madison Parks Department is not flush with the kind of budget that the park-rich status warrants. This, at least, is my understanding for why the park playgrounds around town are growing ever-more similar. There are some variable features, but these features are ordered from catalogs and designed to come together as a recognizable-looking playground.

However, despite the somewhat cookie-cutter nature of play equipment in the U.S. these days, there are differences among playgrounds. After working with neighbors to select playground equipment for a park near my house, I’m noticing the nuances more and more. With my two young kids, ages three and five, I am seeking out variety and adventure.

Traveling beyond our immediate neighborhood for our park trips, we have become playground tourists. I am learning from my kids what they like, and how the different settings influence their play. I am also regularly googling things like ‘nature-based play’ and ‘playable sculpture,’ following a growing movement inspired, in part, by Paige Johnson’s site Play-Scapes, and coveting more things like the ‘Swing Time’ in Boston and the Holten Bridge swings in Milwaukee.

This summer, I launched Madison Playground Review: Adventures of Playground Tourists. This is my own playspace, an online project that gives me a place to explore my growing curiosity and share some insight. I hope it is both inspiring and useful.

We tend to like playgrounds set in spots that serve to jump-start further exploration. For example, playgrounds near a trail into a woods, such as Heritage Heights Park. The kids ‘warm-up’ in a familiar way, then we meander into unchartered territory with our energy up.

We also like playgrounds with interesting geographic features, like hills, boulders or ravines, like Glenwood Children’s Park. Naturally, assets like trees are also really important, and they seem to psychologically make play flow more, well, natural. In these cases, the play equipment encourages community to gather. A playground in the middle of the field, like a car abandoned on a highway, is not very fun for anyone when the sun is burning hot.

The amazing tree fort at Henry Vilas Zoo.

The amazing tree fort at Henry Vilas Zoo.

Playgrounds where things are built to a scale that allows adults to play with kids are, in my experience, really fun. One example is the Henry Vilas Zoo children’s area. There are also places that defy category, such as landscaping that makes you want to move around or art that invites climbing. These ‘playable spaces’ are the future of healthy public life.

As Playground Tourists, I hope we can also be instigators for innovative parks and play spaces that break the cookie-cutter mold. In this city with so many playgrounds, we have so many opportunities to invest in what I would call ‘postcard-worthy’ public places. Madison Playground Review is meant to be part of this conversation.

You can read more of Jessica’s writing and ruminations at Between Two Lakes and a Hard Place.

 

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