Los Angeles is known for fast cars, great beaches, Hollywood celebrities, and beloved musicians, such as the late-Tom Petty. Its parks and playgrounds may be less front and center in area tour guides, but they are nonetheless among the country’s best. From sculptural designs worthy of the boisterous and daring hand of acclaimed L.A.-based architect Frank Gehry, to adventure playgrounds, high-flying skate parks, and the trails, playgrounds, and open space and wildlife corridor forming the Orange County Great Park, the parks and play spaces of Los Angeles and its surrounding communities reflect the sprawling size, eclecticism, and spontaneity of a city almost impossible to pin down. Here are nine of our favorites:
1. La Laguna Playground in Vincent Lugo Park, San Gabriel
La Laguna playground is proof a classic playground can stand the test of time. Designed in 1965 by Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez, the playground known locally as “dinosaur park” was saved from demolition in 2006 by the Friends of La Laguna, who collected more than 2,500 signatures in support of its preservation.
Following a comprehensive preservation plan funded through a California Cultural and Historic Endowment Grant and the Annenberg Foundation, the sand lagoon with boldly colored creature sculptures, including a climbable octopus, pink whale, and spiked serpent, was reopened in 2012, with updates to the dock and dragon-slide. It is now on the California Register of Historic Places and has been named one of America’s coolest playgrounds, according to LAist. The Atlantis Play Center in Garden Grove, Legg Lake Park in Whittier Narrows, and Coldwater Park in Beverly Hills are other area examples of Dominguez’ iconic work.
2. Orange County Great Park, Irving
The opening of the Orange County Great Park in 2013 represented a historic occasion: one of the first times a U.S. military base had been transformed into a park and recreation space. As part of a reuse plan developed, in part, by landscape firm Ken Smith Workshop, the 1,348-acre metropolitan park on the site of a decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station includes a 175-acre sports park (which will serve as a practice ice rink for the Anaheim Ducks), along with an 18-hole golf course, trails, agricultural fields, playgrounds, open space and a wildlife corridor.
There are some truly innovative concepts in the elaborate land reuse and facilities development project, including human-scaled chess sets, an orange observation balloon, a farm and food lab, and a 2,600-foot walking path includes historic markers of regional social, cultural, and political events from 13,000 B.C. to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Playgrounds on the site are furnished with popular Goric play elements, including a zip line, EPDM rubber mounds, Spirallo spiral climber, slides, and a rope climber.
3. Culver City Park, Culver City
Why did LA Weekly chose Culver City Park as the city’s best new playground in 2012? Because it is fresh and provocative. Situated on a hilltop, the redesigned play space has the bold geometric look of an art installation. The showpiece is a large climbing structure made of connected dodechahedrons called “Bloqx.” For toddlers, there is a sand and water area with a pump, chutes, and wheels, ideal for imaginative play. For bigger kids, there are kinetic climbing walls, cable ladders, and ropes strung with orbs—all of the equipment supported by child development research. A nearby basketball court, skate park, and shaded picnic area round out the integrated play setting.
4. Malibu Bluffs Park, Malibu
Views aren’t everything, but they are important, especially if you’re in Malibu, California. Malibu Bluffs Park, near Pepperdine University, sprawls across a tawny hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There are hiking trails, athletic fields, a shaded picnic area, even a whale watching station. The small enclosed playground has a sand pit containing what may be my son’s favorite piece of playground equipment — a stationary, hand-operated digger with a lever arm and scoop. With the deft use of two hands, a swiveling body, and a good bit of fine motor coordination, kids can feel as though they’re part of a construction crew.
5. Monitor Park Skate Park, Los Angeles
Spohn Ranch Skateparks latest project, a collaboration with EPT Design and the Trust for Public Land opened at Monitor Park in Watts in January 2015. The below-grade skatepark is 6,000 square feet and features a blend of concrete street elements and transitional topographical terrain. The project has transformed what once was an empty lot filled with weeds and trash into a state-of-the-art community gathering space.
Goric stepped in to contribute the Turning Point, a reflective steel ball, a set of parallel climbing and sliding beams known as the Waterfall, and a spiral climbing device called the Spirallo. By incorporating stainless steel playground equipment into the layout of the skate park, the design creates separate but connected areas for older and younger children to engage in play. It works especially well in an urban setting known for Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, a collection of 17 steel rebar armatures, decorated with ceramic tiles, seashells, and mirrors, and emblematic of restorative creative energy of the community.
6. Grand Park, Los Angeles
“Cartoony and awesome” is how Curbed describes Grand Park, a $1 million forest-inspired playground by designers Rio Clementi Studios. With undulating, rubber-surfaced mounds reminiscent of those at Site Design Group’s Mary Bartleme in Chicago, the playground could have been pulled from the pages of Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” It includes a 20-foot-tall chartreuse tree fort, giant tube slide, and climbing mounds with rock-climbing-style toe- and finger-holds, among other attractions. The downtown LA playground, close to Grand Central Market and the Broad Museum, is one of a number of big city destination playgrounds that are pushing the boundaries of color, height, and materials to stand on their own as gracefully sculptured works of architecture.
7. Shane’s Inspiration at Griffith Park, Los Angeles
Opened in September 2000, Shane’s Inspiration, created by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation & Parks in conjunction with the Boundless Playground Resource Center, was the first universally accessible playground in California. Dedicated to Shane Williams, who died of spinal muscular atrophy, the travel-themed playground close to the LA Zoo has a space shuttle with an hourglass play panel, an airplane cockpit with a map of the United States, and a paved pathway, all of it accessible to those with mobility challenges. The eponymous non-profit organization that funded the project has grown to network of 63 inclusive playgrounds, across the nation and in Mexico, Israel, Ecuador and Russia. Nearby is the newly refurbished Griffith Park Recreation Center Playground, which is well worth a side trip. Two long zip lines, a faux rock mountain, a loose parts lumberjack area, and a play drum set, have helped offset some of the huge crowds that can make Shane’s a bit difficult to navigate at peak times on the weekend.
8. Irvine Adventure Playground, Irvine
A popular article from The Atlantic called “The Overprotected Kid” from April 2014 argues in favor of adventure playgrounds and risk taking in childhood. The Irvine Adventure Playground, one of only three of its kind in the country, is a quintessential example. Built in the 1970s and closed in 2008 for an extensive remodel, the unstructured play environment has remained a favorite since its reopening. Children can play in ankle-deep mud, push dump trucks, or build forts with giant play blocks. The space also contains a sensory garden, tree house, bamboo forest, hammocks, and several cast iron Goric Farm Pumps children can hand operate independently, or as part of a team, to manipulate water flow. Nothing better illustrates the power of the sensory experience of water than the story of Anne Sullivan teaching Helen Keller the meaning of the word water. As Sullivan put Helen’s hand under a stream of water, she began spelling w-a-t-e-r into her palm. Keller writes in her autobiography, “Suddenly, I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.” As with other simple, operable tools found on the playground, the farm pump promotes creative thinking, negotiation, and problem solving, while bringing children into direct contact with the natural world. The “blank slate” design continues to evolve as children manipulate objects of a world that is largely of their own making.
9. Playa Vista Central Park playground, Playa Vista
Set on an undulating moonscape of bright green EPDM rubber surfacing, the Playa Vista Central Park playground by The Office of James Burnett and Michael Maltzan is an otherworldly, immersive topography begging to be explored. Sleek stainless steel sculptural elements, including Goric’s Rainbow, Waterfall, Sphaghetti 3 and Hill Slide, adorn the mounds and provide delightful surprises for children ready to climb. Visually stunning against a backdrop of tall orange fencing, the playground’s simple evocative play elements and inviting sand pit come together in a seductive design that continues to feel new after many visits.