A field guide to Madison-area playgrounds

Adventures beyond the backyard swing set

Among parents, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the best playground is the one that's just a hop, skip and a jump away. But when you can't face setting out for same old patch of pea gravel, it's time to look beyond your neighborhood stomping grounds. Luckily, Madison boasts more than 150 playgrounds, and there are a number of play-worthy spots outside the city limits, too. Here's a taste of the fun to be had. It may not be clean, but it will be good -- and, best of all, it won't cost a dime.

Vilas Park
Madison, near west, 702 South Randall Ave.

Thanks to the busloads of zoo-bound kids that arrive daily, Vilas Park sees more sets of sneakers than any other park in the city. With two separate but equally substantial play areas and a recently reinstalled carousel inside the zoo, this is an embarrassment of recreational riches.

The playground closest to the zoo's entrance famously includes the Old Woman's landmark shoe, which houses a metal slide. Swing sets overlook a sprawling play structure that includes everything from a six-foot-long crawling tunnel, to suspended steps, to horizontal ladders. Just across the field, the west playground lends itself to feats of balance and gymnastic prowess. Daredevils will want to scale the ladder that twists from side to side as you climb it. Acrobats will welcome a chance to bust some moves on the monkey bars. All this, and not one, but two glide rides -- a kind of child-sized zip line -- so kids can race each other.

Orton Park
Madison, near east, 1103 Spaight St.

Madison's first park is set on a compact city block framed by old homes and anchored by a large gazebo. Its small but pleasantly shaded play structure attracts a steady stream of visitors arriving by stroller, sling and scooter. A playground stands or falls on the quality of the materials underfoot, and Orton is blessed with a superbly cushy layer of tire chips that won't get stuck in your shoes. Where have all the tires gone? Why, they've gone to shredders, every one. This must explain the faux tire swing made of bright blue plastic.

Elmside Circle Park
Madison, east, 2828 Center Ave. (at Elmside Blvd.)

This toddler park extraordinaire sits on an idyllic boulevard stretching from Atwood Avenue to Lake Monona. Its claim to fame among the east-side preschool set: the horsies, of course! Little ones love saddling up on the diminutive merry-go-round with four horse-shaped seats, each one a different color to squabble over. After a spin, head for the swings or the not-too-daunting play structure. The ample lap of folk artist Sid Boyum's Polar Bear Chair is another irresistible draw for little cubs. Bring the camera, smile and say ice cube!

Adults and kids alike will enjoy the neighborly vibe here; this park's small size makes it easy to meet, chat and play with other families.

Elver Park
Madison, far west, 1236 McKenna Blvd.

A failsafe choice for parents who find that days go by a little faster with some fresh air and human contact, this play area is perpetually busy, if a tad close to the hum of traffic whizzing by on McKenna Boulevard. The equipment presents activities geared to young children, from ladders to a spiral slide. Older kids will likely prefer hitting the courts and playing fields to practice the sports of their choice. A place for all seasons, Elver Park also boasts the best sledding hill in Madison.

Four Corners Park
Shorewood Hills, Edgehill Dr.

Possibilities for imaginative play bloom in this quiet park tucked in a grove of towering pine trees. There is something here for everyone -- toddler swings, a giant sandbox and a gently bouncing seesaw that fits three kiddies to a side will delight the youngest visitors. An old-school merry-go-round and a large, newish play structure with plenty of climbing features and a steep double racing slide will appeal to school-age children.

Offering welcome shade and a trio of picnic tables, a small shelter makes an inspiring spot for outdoor art projects. (A morning day camp meets here during the summer months.) Other picnic tables are scattered throughout the park, including a low-to-the-ground one where kids can snack Japanese style. Wrapped around the base of a tree, a small wooden stage awaits impromptu performances.

Kids' Crossing
McKee Farms Park, Fitchburg, 2930 Chapel Valley Rd. (near Fish Hatchery Rd. and Highway PD)

Built by an army of community volunteers during five days in 2001, Kids' Crossing serves the recreational needs of the rapidly populating Fitchburg area. Surrounded by walking and bike trails, playing fields and, crucially, a large shelter with clean bathrooms , this bustling playground is the jewel in McKee Farms Park's 59-acre crown.

In addition to swings and a small amphitheater, you'll find a most impressive warren of elevated walkways terminating in assorted slides, ladders and lookout towers. You might just have to claim a crow's nest to scan the horizon for an especially adventurous child. This playground safely caters to all ages. An adjacent tot lot, away from the antics of the bigger kids, features a toddler maze, play structure and miniature barnyard and racecar.

Pack sunscreen; shade is in short supply here.

Middleton Hills Neighborhood Park
Frank Lloyd Wright Ave.

Spic and span, like its New Urbanist surroundings, this playground gets a lot of traffic. Seriously, despite its pedestrian-friendly locale, a lot of people are pulling up in cars.

It's a well-rounded destination, to be sure, with a mix of play equipment for toddlers and school-age children. It favors climbers and sliders (so long as they don't mind plastic's staticky ride). Go elsewhere if swings are your thing.

Before leaving, take a stroll on the raised footpath encircling the reclaimed wetlands. If you can convince your child to sit still for a few minutes, you'll see a variety of birds, bugs and small animals.

M. Y. Dream Park
Winnequah Park, Monona, Nichols Rd. at Winnequah Rd.

Colorful statues of a wizard and a sea dragon welcome children to M. Y. (Monona Youth) Dream Park, another marvel of community spirit. Places to swing, scamper, hide and seek abound within a mostly wooden play structure decorated with ceramic tiles of hand- and footprints. Sets of swinging rings and horizontal ladders at two different heights challenge big kids and, at the same time, give smaller fry a chance to get the hang of things. Nearby amenities include Winnequah Park with its playing fields, gazebo and scenic lagoon, as well as Monona's public library and swimming pool.

Put the final cherry on top of any trip to the Dream Park with a cone at Monona Bait and Ice Cream, 4516 Winnequah Rd.(across from Schluter Beach; open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily). This small park's play equipment is nothing special, but with its views of Lake Monona, grill box and abundance of tables, it's just right for a picnic.

Glenwood Children's Park
Madison, near west, 602 Glenway St.

The modern-day playground, a carefully engineered construct of primary colors and predictable geometry, isn't every family's cup of tea. For close encounters with all things green, explore Glenwood Children's Park, the enchanted forest just a stone's throw from the southwest bike trail. Almost 60 years ago, landscape architect Jens Jensen turned an abandoned sandstone quarry into a place where young bodies -- and imaginations -- can wander freely.

Without rhythms of swing and seesaw to set the pace, kids are likely to lose track of time as they scramble up and down the rocky ravine or build forts out of fallen branches. On the small park's other side, an open-air palace of tree-lined "rooms" filled with native plants welcomes the quiet attention of budding botanists. Many footpaths trace remarkably varied terrain up to a hilltop council ring paved with stone, ideally situated for casting magic spells or simply watching clouds shape-shift across the sky.

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