Creative designs and a dose of magic set these epic playgrounds apart.

Childhood's Gate at Penn State Arboretum
Credit: Childhood's Gate at Penn State Arboretum

Updated May 23, 2019

When you're a kid, the line between real and imaginary is deliciously fine. The best places to play—whether a backyard mud pit, a couch-cushion fort, or one of the brilliantly designed spaces presented here—straddle that boundary. They inspire creative dreams, stretch minds and bodies, and encourage experimentation, building knowledge and confidence in the process. Most important of all, they're just plain fun! The five spots featured here celebrate play in big—and unique—ways. From Berkeley's build-your-own adventure-scape to a fully accessible Virginia wonderland, each makes it easy to find your happy place.

Childhood's Gate at Penn State Arboretum : State College, PA

Tucked away in the Penn State Arboretum is a secret, whimsical land where nature meets play. This completely hands-on play space allows kids to run wild, explore, and transport themselves to a magical world. One of the main attractions of the land is The Glass House, which hosts several activities such as building bird houses and feeders in the winter, or making terrariums, and starting seeds in the spring. Around the park are several animal statues, most notably the giant green caterpillar, that kids can touch and climb on. Kids can also travel through the Limestone cave or learn about animals of the past in the fossil gap. They can even put on a mini-concert with the park's selection of instruments, including chimes and xylophones that produce the most serene of sounds. For when they tire from exploring, there's the Little Free Library stocked with books for both children and adults to read (we recommend popping a squat on toadstool seats!). Everywhere you look there's a new path to run down and a new spot to scout; not to mention, Childhood's Gate is probably the best place ever to play hide-n-go-seek.

Pier 6 playgrounds: Brooklyn, NY

With a five-star view of Manhattan and five distinct landscaped playgrounds, Pier 6 is a destination play space for locals and tourists alike. Kids can sample two-story slides and giant climbers; test out 10 swing sets (including ropes for the Tarzan-minded); dig in a 6,000-square-foot sandbox; and explore a marsh garden, then cool off with water-jet play in a boulder-strewn grotto (shoes recommended). On-site is a brick-oven pizza joint, and ice cream is nearby at Pier 5. On summer weekends, the $2 ferry to Governor's Island leaves Pier 6 every 30 minutes. 

The Rory Meyers Children's Adventure Garden: Dallas, TX

Half teaching arboretum, half fantasyland, this eye-popping, eight-acre facility at the Dallas Arboretum opened in 2013. Education aplenty is deftly tucked into state-of-the-art exhibits featuring water play, science experiments, 3-D movies, touch screens, and old-fashioned footpaths through mini-habitats. Kids can meet super-size ants, mushrooms, and flowers; climb in a 32-foot fabricated tree; and walk a garden maze.

Arboretum admission $15 ages 13 and up, $10 ages 3-12, free ages 2 and under; $3 extra for Children's Garden. Reservations recommended.

Berkeley Marina Adventure Playground: Berkeley, CA

It's all DIY at this maker-space-by-the-sea, where children can earn the use of hammers, saws, and paint by picking up trash, stray nails, and other construction debris around the site. This "adventure playground" model—of lightly supervised free play with natural and creative materials—bloomed in Europe in the 1940s. Berkeley is the flagship of the few U.S. facilities. Kids ages 7 and up can ride the zip line and work independently to build the landscape of their dreams; younger ones must stay within arm's reach of a parent.

Free for families of four or fewer kids; fees apply for larger parties; a waiver is required.

Clemyjontri Park: McLean, VA

The large, bright play structures in this accessible park would thrill any young child, but for kids who can't navigate traditional playgrounds, this park is, as Goldilocks would say, "just right"—and something special. Pint-size wheelchair drivers can navigate ramps between structures and roll right onto the gilded carousel. There are high-backed swings and one that accommodates a wheelchair. The playground surface is designed for wheels; the large jungle gym sports fun challenges for all abilities; and a learning panel features braille.

Free admission; rides cost $2 weekdays, $3 weekends. Carousel open seasonally, weather permitting.

City Museum: St. Louis, MO

From the Enchanted Caves to the fantastical roof playground, this artist-built museum is jammed with mosaics and sculpture designed for climbing, crawling, and sliding. (Museum goers of a certain age should consider knee pads.) Kids flock to the sinewy steel climbers and multistory slides that loop through both indoor and outdoor exhibits. On the roof (open in warm weather starting May 27 for an additional fee), they'll find a giant praying mantis, a pond, a school bus, slides, swiveling chairs, and a Ferris wheel with sweeping views of St. Louis. Call to confirm that the Ferris wheel will be in service on the day you plan to visit. 

$16 ages 3 and up, free ages 2 and under. Some attractions have age and height restrictions.