World’s Coolest Playgrounds
Some unusual playmates hang out at Sweden’s Plikta Park: sharks (on bouncy springs) and a 50-foot-long blue whale. Kids clamber up its fins, slide down its side, and get swallowed whole as they explore its cavernous pink belly. It’s just one example of what you’ll find in cool playgrounds across Scandinavia.
“There are good and bad playgrounds in every culture, but the best are in Northern Europe,” says Paige Johnson of Playscapes, a blog chronicling the history and innovation of playground design. “There’s a strong belief that children should be outside, every day, no matter the weather, that has beget a commitment to outdoor play.”
Much of the credit goes to Danish studio Monstrum, which continues to push the boundaries of playground design. It specializes in wooden structures with compelling narratives, from oversize spiders caught in their own webs to a structure split down the middle, half pink princess turret and half rocket’s captain quarters.
“We want to give children the opportunity to develop into responsible people who dare to take risks,” explains Monstrum CEO Ole Barslund Nielsen. “When you make playgrounds super safe, you take responsibility away from the kids, and it’s inevitable that the playgrounds will be dull.”
In recent years, debate has surfaced about whether playgrounds in the U.S. have indeed become too safe and standardized. Luckily, there are exceptions to that trend. MonstroCity in St. Louis has climbing tunnels nearly four stories high, while Adventure Playground in Berkeley, CA, encourages kids as young as seven to get creative with hammers and nails, saws, and paint.
For families on vacation, a playground provides a welcome break from sightseeing, a chance for little ones to burn off some energy. It can also provide a glimpse into the local culture, from the setup of the park to the ways families interact.
“The world is a truly fantastic, colorful, and thrilling place for kids to grow up,” says Monstrum designer Monique Engelund. “Playgrounds need to be equally inspiring.”
Here are the designs from San Francisco to Santiago to Sydney that live up to that challenge.
MonstroCity, St. Louis
Built from reclaimed materials—including two airplanes and a fire engine—MonstroCity is a four-story interactive sculpture and play space designed to thrill both children and adults. Feel your heart race as you climb through sky-high tunnels, dive down slides, and leap into oversize ball pits. Then head inside the adjacent City Museum to explore enchanted caves, ride in a human-size hamster wheel, and venture into the World Aquarium’s shark tunnel.
Nishi Rokugo Park, Tokyo
Located between central Tokyo and the city of Kawasaki, Nishi Rokugo combines recycled rubber tires with traditional playground equipment (jungle gyms, steep slides). In total, more than 3,000 tires of varying sizes are used to create tunnels, bridges, towering sculptures for climbing—a giant robot and Godzilla are local favorites—and, of course, tire swings. There’s little shade, so stop by in the early morning or late afternoon for the most comfortable weather, and be sure to wear your play clothes; it’s known to get quite dusty.
Bicentennial Children’s Park, Santiago, Chile
Set atop San Cristóbal Hill, the Bicentennial Children’s playground in Metropolitan Park was built to both celebrate 200 years of Chilean independence and improve the lives of Santiago citizens. Dozens of slides are built into the slope, creating a design completely complementary of the surrounding landscape; spherical fountains offer some relief from the sun, and ample seating gives parents a place to relax. Plan to spend a summer afternoon in the park, exploring the play space’s custom jungle gym and the nearby National Zoo.
Jungle Gym, Nashville
Come “swing like a gibbon” at Jungle Gym, a 35-foot-tall tree house, cargo-net climbing area, slide, and giant snake tunnel at the Nashville Zoo. It’s the largest community-built playground in America (perhaps there’s something to that Volunteer State nickname), and a perfect stopover between the African Savannah exhibit—teeming with giraffes, elephants, river hogs—and the Jungle Loop, where leopards, lemurs, and antelopes run wild.
Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco
At downtown San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, steps away from the Children’s Creativity Museum and the beautifully restored 1906 LeRoy King Carousel, awaits the rooftop Children’s Garden. Thrill-seeking tots will love flying down the 25-foot-long tube slide and getting lost in a labyrinth, while others may prefer pounding on the xylophone, running through water fountains, or climbing up the jungle gym. An outdoor amphitheater hosts family-friendly performances, and the nearby learning garden fosters budding green-thumbs with plant-themed classes, crafts, and story hour.
The Blue Whale, Gothenburg, Sweden
There’s no shortage of inventive play parks dreamt up by Monstrum, but we’re limiting ourselves to two favorites—the first being the design firm’s Blue Whale in Gothenburg’s Plikta Park. Kids can walk into the belly of the beast, climb atop the tail for access to a slide, or explore the nearby “seaweed” jungle gym. After a few hours of imaginative play, take your tots to the nearby Gothenburg Natural History Museum for a peek at the real creatures; its collection of blue whales is what inspired this park’s theme.
Tiong Bahru Park Adventure Playground, Singapore
Fans of Thomas the Tank Engine will love navigating Singapore’s Tiong Bahru Park Adventure Playground, where a tilted train looks like it’s headed off the rails. After steering the runaway locomotive to safety, kids can explore a mini maze and take an old-school merry-go-round for a spin. If your child prefers boats to trains, opt for nearby Sembawang Park’s Playground Docks, a battleship jungle gym set in the sand, complete with rope ladders, slanting decks, and a secret escape hatch.
Sunbird Park, Vail, CO
When Colorado architecture firm Tres Birds Workshop was commissioned to build a playground in Vail, it wasn’t given many guidelines. The only direction was to “design and implement a concept that would create an impression on Vail residents and visitors alike.” Sunbird Park (also known as the Vail Nests) succeeds by combining artful form and function. Architects took inspiration from both nearby bird habitats and the town’s ski culture to create three “nest” tree houses with supports made to mimic the look of traditional wooden skis. Rope bridges connect the structures, slides slip out the back, and a climbing wall challenges older players. Combine play here with some turns on the nearby ice-skating rink.
Water Playground, Tychy, Poland
Keeping cool during the summer months in Tychy has been a little easier ever since 2011, when the Water Playground opened near the Gostynia River in southern Poland. Designed to complement the existing park landscape—and avoid cutting down as many trees as possible—this playground was built in a figure-eight shape and filled with LED-lit fountains, faucets, and splash pools, so water play can continue from dawn until dusk.
Diana’s Memorial Playground, London
A fitting tribute to the “people’s princess,” the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens celebrates the innocence of childhood with a Peter Pan–inspired play scape. A wooden pirate ship serves as the memorial’s centerpiece, surrounded by mermaid fountains, tepee forts, and a sensory trail with soothing chimes. Parents will appreciate the plentiful seating, alfresco café, and well-maintained restrooms featuring changing tables.
Hakone Woods of Net, Hakone, Japan
“Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s crocheted playscapes, which have gone viral, have organic shapes and eye-popping colors; like something out of a Dr. Seuss book,” says Playscapes blogger Paige Johnson. “They are a unique way to experience an artwork...through play.” MacAdam’s Woods of Net is no exception. Knit entirely by hand, the playground allows children to crawl in, swing on, and jump through the vibrant netting. The work itself is sheltered by a Lincoln Log–esque pavilion, providing visitors a break from both the outdoor elements and the more adult-oriented exhibits at the Hakone Open-Air Museum.
Imagination Playground, New York City
Designed by David Rockwell, a New York–based architect who also happens to be a father, the Imagination Playground encourages its pint-size visitors to create their own adventures. The South Street Seaport space eschews traditional fixed structures like swings, slides, and monkey bars in favor of sand, water (in the summer months), found objects like wheels, ropes, and crates, and larger-than-life blue building blocks in a variety of shapes. On-site staffers help kids get creative, turning the loose parts into houses, spaceships, cars—the sky’s the limit.
Fruit and Scent Park, Stockholm
Have a picky eater on a steady diet of chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese? Perhaps a trip to Sweden’s Fruit and Scent Park will change his or her culinary tune. This produce-themed playground just south of downtown Stockholm features a banana slide, an orange seesaw, pear huts, a watermelon jungle gym, and a pair of cherry swings, all designed by public artist Johan Ferner Ström. Now, who said you can’t play with your food?
Blaxland Riverside Park, Sydney
The self-proclaimed “biggest and best playground in Sydney,” Blaxland Riverside Park covers more than seven acres near the Parramatta River with enough activities to tire out even the liveliest toddler. A multilevel tree house and 170 dancing fountains could keep climbing kiddos occupied for hours. Futuristic-looking swings and slides, a climbing wall, bike trails, and a zipline round out the rest of the park’s amusements.
Adventure Playground, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley’s Adventure Playground doesn’t look like much. It lacks the glossy veneer found on many American play spaces, but that’s why it’s so notable. This dusty half-acre, inspired by the European adventure playgrounds that originated after World War II, encourages kids to paint, work with tools (saws, hammers, and nails), and run wild. Visitors can climb on kid-created boats, forts, and towers, hop on the zipline, or barrel roll down the hill in a piece of culvert pipe. Note that this playground is recommended for ages seven and up and requires both sturdy closed-toe shoes and adult supervision.
Belleville Park, Paris
When designing the playground for Paris’s Belleville Park, architecture firm BASE consulted both children and adults to learn what they really wanted from the space. The result is an abstract structure that, depending on your sight line—and the strength of your imagination—resembles anything from a pirate ship to a flying carpet to a medieval fortress. Built into the slope of the landscape, the playground’s climbing wall is challenging, but its reward is a view of the Eiffel Tower and the entire park.
Clemyjontri Park, McClean, VA
At Clemyjontri Park, children of all abilities are encouraged to play together, side-by-side. The two-acre park is split into four distinct spaces surrounding a centerpiece carousel. Attraction highlights include the Liberty Swing, which can accommodate children in wheelchairs; lowered monkey bars to provide easy access; integration of both braille and sign language throughout the park; and colorful maps and mazes to encourage critical thinking. After kids tire of running and wheeling around, nearby picnic tables provide the perfect spot for lunch.
The Spider with Wooden Huts, Copenhagen
Intended for older children, Monstrum’s larger-than-life Spider playground features complex climbing paths, elevated wooden tree house “huts,” and a faux-tech element in joysticks atop the arachnid’s body. The only way to reach the huts is to hike up the lengthy ladders, creating a physical challenge for the park’s teen and tween visitors.