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.