Now that Spring is here in earnest, the kids and I are trying to spend as much time outside as possible, mostly because outside is my happy place and indoor play areas make me cry. But I’m kind of over the basic playground model. Don’t get me wrong, they certainly have their place, and both of my kids learned to walk on the soft, forgiving rubber flooring of local playgrounds. But now that they’re almost 8 and almost 5, I’ve realized that I have so much more fun with them if we go somewhere that allows us to ALL move around and interact versus the typical playground scenario of kids on the equipment, mom on the bench either watching them lovingly (good mom) or lovingly staring at a phone (bad mom). The parks I love to take my kids to these days all involve some combination of nature and opportunities for creative/dramatic play. In short, these parks all spark imagination in ways that I find slightly different from your typical playground. Here are a few of our favorites:
3901 North High Street, Columbus, OH 43214
Yes, the roses are absolutely stunning. But there’s something about the overall ambiance of the park, nestled within a gorgeously leafy section of historic Clintonville, that takes me back to the gracious, sun-dappled circa 1920s neighborhood that I grew up in. Strolling the manicured paths, sitting in the picturesque arbors, lazing on the sloping lawns…all make it easy to imagine you are pleasantly lost within a happy scene from The Great Gatsby. Of course that all means precisely zero to my kids, but they always seem excited to run around this park and take in the diverse sights and smells.
7741 Lewis Center Road, Westerville, OH 43082
Part of the Preservation Parks of Delaware County system, Char-Mar is a little-known gem of a place. An easy 1.5-mile looping trail begins and ends at a fantastic natural play area with opportunities for fort-building, sliding and creeking. There’s a great wildlife viewing blind structure about halfway along the trail where kids can watch birds and turtles do their thing on the adjacent pond. And the bathrooms are absolutely immaculate for a park. It’s a win-win for families.
800 East 17th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43211
Open Wed – Sun, Memorial Day Weekend – Labor Day Weekend
This is the only park on the list that isn’t free and open year-round, but visiting is so worth both the cost and the wait, especially if you spring for a quite reasonable family membership to the Ohio History Center, itself a very cool museum (which IS open year-round). I was born in 1980, so my prime dramatic play/daydreaming years took place in the mid-late 80s and early 90s. Which means that I was absolutely hooked on reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” and our VHS box set of “Anne of Green Gables.” Accordingly, I wanted nothing more than to be a plucky young farm girl around the turn of the 20th century, and I spent countless hours wearing my mom’s old dresses, carrying wicker baskets around pretending to do farm chores. Too bad I lived in the heart of a big city.
Lucky for grown-up me, and even luckier for my kids, the Ohio Village presents the perfect opportunity to cast yourself back to the days of hoop-and-stick games on the green, kerosene lamps, corsets and death by smallpox. Just kidding, the whole set-up is pretty light on the macabre realities of life in the 1890s, but costumed volunteers really do a great job of helping families delve into a beautifully recreated slice of Ohio’s past.
1375 SR 674 N, Canal Winchester, OH
As much as I love the Ohio Village, THIS is the place that really sets my inner Anne Shirley’s heart aflutter. Slate Run is a real working historical farm, where vegetables are grown, animals are raised and food is preserved according to practices of the 1880s. Costumed staff tend to daily chores as you and the kids visit the barn (which usually contains a variety of animal friends), the farmhouse and the truly stunning grounds. During the peak months (April-September) various unique events are offered (like sheep shearing!), and families can even sign up to help with morning chores. The farmhouse contains a large kitchen where you can watch volunteers bake bread in a wood-fired stove, as well as a parlor where the kids can play old-fashioned games. The biggest hit with my kids (ok, and me too) is the adorable tree swing in the courtyard of the farmhouse.
6320 Artesian Run, Lewis Center, OH 43035
Another great park by the Preservation Parks of Delaware County, this one is THE spot for creeking. The kids and I went last fall when water levels were low and we were able to travel quite a long way along the creek bed, checking out unique stones underneath the water and collecting some great walking sticks made of discarded branches that had been whittled to smoothness by the creek. The trail is a bit more difficult than the one at Char-Mar, but the natural play area is great, and the whole area is so picturesque that we had to steer clear of the dozens of families having professional photos taken amidst the gorgeous scenery.
940 S. Hempstead Road, Westerville, OH 43081
This one is not much of a secret, but since we live in Westerville, it is our absolute favorite go-to place when we just want to get out of the house and wander around someplace dreamy. The variety of things for kids to see and do here is impressive, from the amazing tree house and rope bridge, to the Sisters’ Garden children’s area/water feature and the enchanting Secret Garden not listed on the park map (FYI, it’s not far from the tree house). There are short trails through various parts of the park, a variety of gorgeous garden settings, and so many lovely trees. The bathrooms are nice too. A plethora of programming is offered for kids and grown-ups alike, though my kids seem to enjoy running up and down the large grassy hill near the education pavilion best of all.
I hope this list has helped spark your mom-ination and given you some new outside ideas for the warm weather that’s upon us. Do you have others to add to the list? Let me know in the comments!