The Nation's Best Places to Play

Creative designs and a dose of magic set these epic playgrounds apart.
Photograph by Julienne Schaer

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.

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. Free. Water lab open only in summer.

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. 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. (Museumgoers 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 for an extra $5), 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. $12 ages 3 and up, free ages 2 and under. Some attractions have age and height restrictions.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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