When the temperature drops to single digits and below, as it did here in Chicago last week, the bite of winter can be too severe for children to play outside. For parents, that can mean struggling with cabin fever and restless kids. Fortunately, indoor play spaces are becoming more and more prevalent, especially in urban areas. Here we look at a few innovative indoor playgrounds, play spaces, and adventure parks to get kids running, jumping, and climbing, even when the weather isn’t cooperating.
1. Funtopia, Chicago, Illinois
This popular destination for birthday parties and professional group events in Glenview, Illinois, is essentially a vast indoor ropes course. A collection of interconnected platforms, beams, cable bridges, web climbers, climbing walls, and tire ladders situated throughout the gym offer an intense workout. They also test visitors’ confidence and coordination. In addition to the ropes course, a mesh-enclosed jungle gym (similar to the Wallhalla), free fall zone, and constructed cave of rocks, stalactites, and stalagmites, make the adventure park a wonderful winter escape.
2. Ikea Småland
Like the adventure playgrounds of post-WW II Europe, Ikea’s vibrantly colored play forest known as Smaland lets kids play without parental intrusion. Packed with climbing areas, ball pits, art tables, and televisions, the play area is staffed by adults, and parents are advised to drop their children off at the entrance. Though part of the intention is undoubtedly to give parents the mental and physical space to shop more deliberately, the concept jives with recent theories surrounding childhood development. Kids need to be between 37 and 54 inches tall and potty trained; after signing up and waiting in line, parents leave their children for one hour of free play.
3. 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.
4. The Big Playhouse, Westwood, New Jersey
Miniature play towns are the latest craze at children’s museums. And for good reason: they give kids a chance to socialize, cooperate on real-life tasks, and exercise their imaginations. Here in Chicago we have Little Beans, Wonderworks, and many more. On a national scale, one of the coolest incarnations is the Big Playhouse in Westwood, New Jersey. As recently profiled in Fatherly, the space includes a cottage, a stuffed animal hospital, a hay-pitching barnyard, race track, and grocery store. What better way to practice being an adult than practice being an adult.
5. Splash Zone, Chelsea Piers, Stamford, Connecticut
When it’s two degrees outside, a steamy indoor pool sounds pretty nice. Splash Zone, just a short hop from Chelsea Piers in New York, is among the best of the best. The warm water pool, just 2.6 to 4 feet deep, is great for children working on their first strokes, and a separate splash pool for very young swimmers is conceived as a pirate ship, with multiple water features. Three brightly colored water slides for swimmers 42” tall make the Splash Zone a nice half-day affair.
6. Yu Kids Island, Chicago, Illinois
Many shopping mall developers are including indoor playgrounds in their arterial footprints. This, mind you, is not a new idea. I remember riding a brightly colored play horse in a Meijer’s play area in the Detroit area in the mid-80s. But examples at the time were spotty. Now many malls have gone vacant, and newer stores – for instance, my local Target – don’t offer the same kid-friendly play zones. Yu Kids Island, though, with several Illinois locations, appears to be at the edge of a new paradigm. Each day, the franchise offers drop-in play geared to ages eight months to six years. Whether it is a freely spinning palm tree spinner or a dancing balloon area (imagine a more sophisticated ball pit), the play options for kids are interactive and smartly designed, with the high-concept day-glo feel of a hip Asian tea salon.
7. Mt. Playmore, Austin, Texas
For sheer scale, few indoor play areas can compete with Mt. Playmore the largest indoor gym in Central Texas. The gym features a 3,000-square-foot labyrinthine playscape defined by high-tension web tunnels and tubes. The cage-like structure bears resemblance to the Walalholla, designed by the Dutch firm Carve and licensed by Goric. Leather sofas, while unglamorous, give adults a place to relax and watch from the outside. Also setting the gym apart are a connected arcade and a weekly reptile show every Wednesday.