Finding playgrounds that challenge kids to be brave

I have the good fortune to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there are eight playgrounds within a couple of blocks of our house, including one at the end of our street. Our kids are very active and athletic, and having so many different parks has provided a wide range of challenges that has helped them grow strong and confident.

Still, I can’t help but feel that parks are losing something. As the city has started to renovate some of the older play structures, I have seen them rip down some of the more challenging jungle gyms and replace them with “creative spaces” like the Alexander W. Kemp playground on the Cambridge Common. This seems to be the new trend in playgrounds, where they feature large sand pits, water and movable blocks. The idea is that these allow kids to build and create and play in new, imaginative ways. I think this is great, but I worry that they lost their sense of – dare I say it? – danger.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to see my kids hurt. But I really do love to watch them exploring their limits and see proud look on their faces when they manage to do something they weren’t sure they could manage. I want to see my kids grow into independent capable people, and an important part of this is understanding what is safe and what isn’t. I won’t always be around to tell them not to do something foolish, and learning to climb to the top of a jungle gym helps them discover what their limits are and how to explore the boundaries in a sensible way.

Playgrounds seem to come in two age ranges: 1-4 and 5-12.  Very early on my kids lost interest in the short slides and simple ladders at the “kiddie parks,” so by age three they were on to the 5-12 playgrounds. They have a great time, and I have loved watching them quickly conquer these structures intended for older kids. My older daughter Ayelet has just turned five and has just about mastered the monkey bars, which was really the one remaining thing these playgrounds had that still challenge her.  Her three-year-old brother Rafael does an impressive job keeping up with her, although he isn’t quite up to monkey bars yet.

I’m thrilled to see how capable Ayelet and Rafael are, but it has made me wonder – where will they find their next challenges? I started to ask around if anyone could point me to parks that would present new, exciting adventures. A friend who loves rock climbing pointed me to the Esplanade Playspace across the river in Boston, so we made an expedition there.  I was pleased to see that it didn’t disappoint.

A massive rope play structure challenges kids to climb high

A massive rope play structure challenges kids to climb high

At the center of the playground is a massive rope climbing structure with many possible paths up.  If you make it to the top, you are rewarded with a great view and then a wonderful ride down the slide. Ayelet was excited to go up, but Rafael needed some encouragement. To help him get going, I went up to the top with him…and then looked down.

We were quite high, at least 15′ off the ground. It was a rope structure, so there was a straight view down. My first thought was “wow, this is a little scary.” And then I watched my kids carefully scramble up and across the top. They quickly learned how to use their hands and feet together, test their sense of balance, and pick a path to their destination. If they slipped, it would have been a nasty fall down – there were many rope structures that would have broken their fall, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been pretty.

It's a long way down...

It’s a long way down…

But they didn’t fall. They were having a blast, learning to climb, learning what they could – and could not – do. Soon, they had figured out the “outside climb.” If you have the patience, you can see them go up, across, and down the slide in under two minutes – even three-year-old Rafael:

While they had conquered this path, the park still offers a lot for them on future visits. There are other, more difficult paths up the structure. And even though Ayelet is a pro on the monkey bars, she found new climbing options, like going backwards:

She still needs some help on the flip – good to see there are still challenges left.

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