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For many people, the self-contained indoor soft play areas at McDonalds bring back fond memories. I can remember, myself, at the age of five or six, enjoying a Happy Meal and then spending the next thirty minutes diving into a nest of colored balls. I’m not entirely sure what attracted me to the play areas, but part of it, I’m sure, had to do with the novelty of being in an indoor environment where jumping, diving, and climbing were condoned – even encouraged – activities. Indoor playgrounds have evolved in leaps and bounds since the 1980s. And yet, at the core, each of these trailblazing playgrounds strike at that same unstructured freedom I can still remember.

The Commons, Columbus, Indiana
In 2011, a Columbus, Indiana mall called The Commons was demolished and redeveloped. The redesign by Boston-based Koetter Kim & Associates and Copley Wolff Design Group responded to community meetings and public interest surveys, which showed strong support for updating the original indoor playground. The result is impressive: the ADA compliant playscape features a towering Tom Luckey climbing structure constructed from steel beams and approximately 10 miles of rubber-coated steel aircraft cables. Goric’s spinning Whirlwind is right at home here in a Crayola-bright playground warmed by natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows enveloping the space.

Koetter Kim & Associates, Copley Wolff Design Group

Kindergarten, Zaragoza, Spain
Remember the life-size chess board from Alice and Wonderland? That’s okay, you don’t have to. A school in Zaragoza, Spain has one. The Copenhagen design firm Rosan Bosch Studio has turned the building’s interior into a vibrant landscape of custom-designed mountains, caves, reading nooks, and yes, life-sized chess boards. It is cool, clean functional, intuitive, and weird in all the best ways, like a Googleplex for kids.

Rosan Bosch Studio/Kim Wendt

MobiVersum, Volkswagon
More and more corporations are introducing playscapes on their campuses as an attempt to reflect the firms’ identities. The designs are often immense and otherworldly, as is evident in MobiVersum, an ambitious indoor playground by the architecture firm J. Maher H. on the site of a Volkswagen campus in Wolfsburg, Germany. Sinuous networks of stairs, slides, nets, and tunneling passageways are works of sculpture in themselves, but also, presumably, a way for employees to take a break after a long day of emails.

J. Mayer H

Kids Spot, San Francisco
Anyone who has young children will appreciate the intention of Kids’ Spot at San Francisco International Airport. Aptly described on the airport’s website as a place “where children can ‘let off steam’ prior to their flights,” these small-scale interactive play areas in terminals 3 and 4 seem like an idea long past due. The 45 minutes prior to the last transcontinental flight I took with my wife and two-year-old found us struggling to manage the wee one’s steam release on the hard-backed vinyl chairs at O’hare. What I wouldn’t have done for three Goric’s Sphaghetti 3s to magically descend from the ceiling and install themselves in the concourse. Along with tunnel slides that undulate like slinking Eric Carle caterpillars, these climbers make wonderful use of a small space.

San Francisco International Airport

Discovery Elementary School, Arlington, Virginia
Discovery Elementary School, a net-zero school in Arlington, Virginia by VMDO, is ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. With a design that includes solar panels and geothermal walls, the school, which opened in 2015, aims to produces as much or more energy from renewable sources than it uses. A digital dashboard in the lobby tracks energy usage, and outdoor retention gardens help students learn about the water cycle. Goric supplied the yellow spiral slide that carries students between floors and beckons many to exercise by climbing the stairs for repeated trips.

VMDO

Manitoba Children’s Museum, Winnipeg, Canada
Watch this video of the permanent exhibition at the Manitoba Children’s museum and tell me you don’t want to go there. The 2011 design by Toboggan invites children and their caregivers into fantastic miniature worlds. The Illusion Tunnel, for instance, is a giant slide resembling a kaleidoscope and designed to test sensory perceptions. Lasagna Lookout offers budding chefs a lesson in food’s textural sensations as they climb through layers of constructed spaghetti, cheese, and ravioli. In the Tumble Zone, kids create cityscapes. Taken together, the exhibition is a great lesson in what the best children’s museums offer: a way for children to learn by moving their bodies.

Toboggan


Kindergarten, Slovenia
At a kindergarten in Slovenia, designed by Jure Kotnik Architecture, each stair of the central staircase is associated with a color and number as a subtle way to encourage learning. It’s not an indoor playground, per se, but the simplicity of the concept, and its potential application in so many other contexts helped it earn a spot on this list. Because of the visibility of their equipment and surfacing, indoor playgrounds are full of promise as legible spaces for promoting color recognition, counting, literacy, and other foundational academic skills. Designers and manufacturers are wise to take note of this project and imagine how it might be adapted elsewhere.

Jure Kotnik Architecture

 

Chicago Children’s Museum, Chicago
Perhaps I’m partial to this one because I live in Chicago. But the Kovler Family Climbing Schooner at the Chicago Children’s Museum is really pretty ingenious. An outstanding example of how indoor playgrounds can encourage children to take risks, this three-story mass of faux-ship rigging leads children from the cargo hold to the crow’s nest, with tropical fish on the ship’s floor and spectacular views from on top.

Chicago Children’s Museum

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