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.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition. It was my husband who had originally signed up to chaperone the event, thinking that spending a few days with his 11-year-old daughter and her compatriots would serve as an excellent anthropological experience. But when an unexpected work obligation made it impossible for him to attend, it was me left holding the bag

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.

Helping your kids stick with music lessons

Some clever-clogs is playing Rachmaninoff on the piano at a party, and there it is again, that oft-heard adult lament of lost opportunity from a dejected onlooker: "I wish I could play. I wish my parents hadn't let me quit music lessons. I was just a kid -- how was I to know?" It's a reasonable complaint.

A summer camp quiz for parents

If you're checking out summer camps for your child, there are many issues -- some obvious, some less so -- to keep in mind. Here's a list to keep handy when you contact camps and camp directors, looking for the perfect spot for your kids to have fun, relax, and learn this summer.

Mama Madison: Lessons in dining out

I know, in the grand scheme of things, that my kid issues, when it comes to dining out, absolutely pale in comparison to those of parents whose kids have special needs. Many kids, especially those who are on the autism spectrum, are disturbed by changes in their routine, or anxious around noisy places. They may not be able tolerate waiting for a table or standing in line. So unfortunately, many of these families just avoid eating out at restaurants altogether.

Mama Madison: Natural vs. un-natural parenting

It's weird to admit this, especially in a city surrounded by as much outdoor beauty as Madison. But frankly, I'm just not that into nature. I'm more of an indoor kind of gal. Give me an afternoon at the Chazen or the Wisconsin Historical Museum over the Arboretum or Olbrich Gardens any day.

Mama Madison: Theatrical talent close to home

Lavish costumes, gorgeous sets, a full orchestra and a concession stand where nothing cost more than two bucks and you have a pitch perfect experience at the theater. Oh, and did I mention the ticket prices were just $10 dollars apiece? One could afford to take the whole family for a live theater experience for less than an evening at the Lego movie would cost including popcorn.

Mama Madison: Race to shame

I think the first time in recent years that I've felt a real sense of shame, as both a parent and community member, was last Tuesday evening as I sat in a crowded elementary school LMC to listen to Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and his colleague, Torry Wynn, present key findings from the 2013 Race to Equity report to our PTO group.

Hancock Center addresses bullying through body movement

It's Wednesday morning at Allis Elementary School on Madison's east side, and 16 third-graders -- 10 boys and six girls -- enter into an open-space classroom in typical wiggly, giggly style. Some are making goofy faces at one another, some are bouncing around hand-in-hand with friends, and others are just trying to stay out of the whirling-dervish path of activity.

Mama Madison: Get in the picture

Of the 789 poorly-composed, way-too-dark and out-of-focus photos currently living on my iPhone, I can count on two hands the number that show my kids and me together. And my husband is in probably no more than three or four of those.

Mama Madison: Welcome to the Parenting Olympics

Something kind of magical has happened these past two weeks during the Sochi Olympics. There is no question, debate or disagreement on what will be watched on television once all homework is done. Everyone in the family makes time to sit down together to watch an hour of so of the primetime televised games.

Mama Madison: Facebook's instant nostalgia fix

Truth be told, though, this month I'm feeling a bit cinematically fried. In some ways, I already feel like I've spent the last week or so at a film festival. A festival specializing in minute-long glimpses of ordinary lives all ending with credits that feature the ubiquitous blue thumbs-up. Yes, it's been the February of the Facebook movie.

Mama Madison: The kindness question

Just last week, on precisely the same day the Momastery post was getting over a million well-deserved views, Madison mom Suzanne Buchko was telling a similar story. Not on a blog but instead in the confines of the modestly circulated Franklin-Randall Elementary School weekly newsletter.

Toddlers take to tablets

Late last month, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a five-year, $27.7 million technology plan calling for all district students, including those in the primary grades, to have significantly increased access to their very own tablet or notebook computer by 2019. Some parents, as well as education professionals, questioned whether elementary-aged kids, especially kindergarteners who aren't even able to read or write yet, will gain much benefit from introducing yet another screen into their lives.

Mama Madison: Science or study hall?

This past Monday, had winter's unrelenting weather allowed, Middleton Cross Plains School District teacher Andrew Harris would have once again been at the helm of a classroom. After nearly four years of fighting his dismissal from Glacier Creek Middle School for viewing and passing on sexually explicit material on district computers, MCPSD has been legally forced to reinstate Herris, this time as a seventh-grade science teacher at Kromrey Middle School.

Mama Madison: MTV provides a teachable moment

In a study published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics have found that the 16 and Pregnant series may have played a significant role in the recent decrease in U.S. teen pregnancies.

Mama Madison: Planning for the MLK holiday

In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the Martin Luther King holiday discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.

Mama Madison: The long vacation

It's not something that happens very often, but last Friday, as news of the impending arctic cold snap reached our house, my kids were rooting for Governor Scott Walker. They were rooting for him to take Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's lead and cancel school throughout the state. They couldn't care less if he had the authority to do such a thing -- if he called off school, he'd be their hero.

Mama Madison: Cheating 101 at Middleton High School

Late last semester, as students were packing up their backpacks one final time before winter break, Middleton High School principal Denise Herrmann and assistant principal Lisa Jondle were co-authoring a note home to parents informing them of a widespread cheating scandal involving nearly 250 calculus students at the school.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!