Playgrounds Get Imaginative: Carousels, Castles and . . . Xylophones?

By Rina Rapuano
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Let's face it: With video games, nonstop cartoon networks and SUVs equipped with DVD players, playgrounds have a lot of competition. Maybe that's why today's designers are stepping up their game, creating fun and educational spaces that eclipse the slide-and-swing-set combos of yesteryear.

Sarah Masterson, author of "DC Baby: A Handbook for Parenting in (& Around) the Capitol City," says she favors playgrounds that are sheltered from sun and traffic while still being open and welcoming.

"Since play really is the 'work' of childhood, my favorite playgrounds offer many different types of challenges," she says. "They may have a space for getting your hands in the sand or dirt to dig and build; wider open spaces for running and jumping and kicking a ball; climbing, swinging and sliding; and transitional spaces for imaginative play."

The Washington area is chock-full of places to play, and we've found a few destination playgrounds -- new dynamos and old favorites -- that are worth the trip for you and your wee ones.

Clemyjontri Park

The vibe at this McLean park is a bit manic -- which is cool if you want your kid to burn off some excess energy, but maybe not so great if you want to peacefully while away an afternoon.

The play area covers nearly two acres and caters to children of all physical abilities by incorporating ramps, swings with special safety features, Braille and a rubber surface that provides smooth sailing for wheelchair users. A central carousel is surrounded by four themed sections: the Rainbow Room, Schoolhouse & Maze, the Movin' and Groovin' Transportation Area, and Fitness & Fun. Several wheelchair-accessible play structures rock and sway, and a tyke-size road twists through the site.

Carrie Sachdev and her daughter, Raina, 2, have trekked to the Clemyjontri playground from their D.C. home several times since it opened in October. Sachdev says the crowded parking lot is a downside, and other parents have complained about the lack of fencing. But she has been impressed with the playground equipment, much of which allows parents to interact with their children rather than sit on the sidelines. "[Raina's] not very adventurous when it comes to climbing and slides, but the cars and houses she likes," Sachdev says.

6317 Georgetown Pike, McLean, 703-388-2807, http://www.clemypark.com.

Discovery Park

Hidden behind Sully Elementary School in Sterling, Discovery Park is indeed a discovery. The 11,000-square-foot playground was designed with education in mind. Cutouts of Mount Vernon and Monticello, as well as depictions of their famous residents, give kids mini history lessons. A Virginia timeline runs from Jamestown's settlement to the end of the Civil War, and a painted wheel shows how certain veggies look aboveground and below.

But it's not all work at Discovery Park. There's plenty of play, too. Several large obstacle courses are decked out with slides, turrets and places to hide, and there's a tot lot for kids ages 2 to 5. Music lovers can make up songs or just bang away on the xylophone, vibraphone and bells.

The playground is only for Sully students during school hours but is otherwise open to the public. School is out through Sept. 3.

Discovery Park, Sully Elementary School, 300 Circle Dr., Sterling, 703-444-7470, http://www.sullypto.com.


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