Madison WI: Living in the City of Playgrounds

It is such a pleasure to re-welcome fabulous guest blogger, Jessica Becker, to introduce our readers to her exciting new 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. So much of the business of real estate is about making this place home, and so we hope you join us in exploring this cool resource! Glenwood Children's Park

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.

Henry Vilas Zoo

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 naturally. 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.

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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Vilas Neighborhood Pop Quiz!

Rhino from Henry Vilas ZooThe Vilas neighborhood is one of near-west Madison's best spots. It has it all - fun and loveable local shops on Monroe Street and South Park Street (not to mention a slew of great ethnic restaurants); beautiful, eclectic houses along tree-lined roads; and numerous outdoor attractions (I’m talking Lake Wingra, Henry Vilas Zoo and the UW Arboretum to name a few). Just blocks from several hospitals and healthcare facilities and within a mile of the Memorial Union and UW campus, Vilas is a popular place for students and professionals of all ages to call home. The Vilas area is truly a one-stop shop kind of spot that can easily meet the interest of any visitor; a unique quality for such a compact space. Although Vilas is a well known and loved area in Madison, a recent stroll through the Henry Vilas Zoo and Vilas Park got me wondering how many people are aware of the rich history and fun facts that dwell there…

DID YOU KNOW that when Henry Vilas Zoo first opened in 1911, only the following animals were in attendance: nine deer, three ground hogs, three wood chucks, two guinea pigs, two rabbits, two white rats, one raccoon, one eagle, one squirrel and one toothless red fox ( Man, a lot has changed!

DID YOU KNOW that the elaborate and somewhat decrepit marble water fountain at the end of Erin Street was only in pristine conditionOld marble fountain at the end of Erin Street for a mere six years ( Work on the fountain finished in 1925 and by 1931 vandals destroyed parts of the fountain. No restoration efforts were ever attempted.

DID YOU KNOW that an over 227-year-old tree sits on the edge of Vilas Park? In 1987 the National Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture recognized the tree as having lived there at the time of the signing of our constitution. WOW!

DID YOU KNOW that Lake Wingra was originally surrounded by an expanse of wetlands that served as a favorite hunting and fishing spot for the Winnebago Indians (

DID YOU KNOW that the origins of the shoe slide in Vilas Park, a long time Madison icon, were a complete mystery up until last year ( The Wisconsin State Journal was contacted by those who had firsthand knowledge of the slide’s construction after including the slide in a series called “Madison in 100 Objects.” Who knew!

Do you have any fun facts or historical tidbits to share about the Vilas area? If so, please comment or email us!

Listing a home? Net more with Roost Realty! We’ll market your home with style, vision and boundless energy. Looking to buy? Let us be your property matchmakers! We’ll get you in the community, lifestyle and home of your dreams – because we know a home is so much more than a house.