LA’s Great 8: Exceptional Outdoor Playgrounds

Erin Mahoney Harris

fun ideas for kids

The concrete slides at South Park playground in Hermosa Beach are super long, exceptionally fast, and can be reached by wheelchair-accessible paths.

If you have grown tired of your usual haunts of fun ideas for kids and are looking to try more creative, unusual and adventurous playground options, you still have some summer vacation left to go exploring! Here are a few parks that stand out, including a couple of newly opened options to keep things fresh.

Slip-Sliding Away

While the recently opened South Park playground in Hermosa Beach (425 Valley Dr.) has a lot to offer, the number-one draw here has got to be the slides. Built into the side of a hill on the northwest side of the park, the side-by-side concrete slides are super-long and exceptionally fast – so much so that younger kids (they’re meant for ages 5 and up) might get a little freaked out as they pick up speed on their first foray down. But once they make that initial safe landing, they’ll be running back up the stairs repeatedly in search of more thrills. Next stop will no doubt be the mini ropes course, which poses a nice little challenge.

Fun as it is, South Park wasn’t created exclusively for adrenaline junkies in the making. It was also designed for universal accessibility. Those awesome slides and all other play areas can be reached via wide wheelchair-accessible pathways, and the four-person teeter-totter, merry-go-round, and some of the swings have high backs for extra support.

Designed as it was in the midst of our endless drought, South Park features low-water landscaping and dry creek beds that offer fun rock-hopping opportunities. What it doesn’t offer is much in the way of shade, at least in the main playground area. But leafy trees can be found around the perimeter of the park, and sun worshippers will enjoy the expansive center lawn, perfect for picnicking, parent-and-me yoga, or just kicking a ball around.

Slide-Seeker’s Bonus Spot: Tucked away in a shady corner of Santa Ana’s Santiago Park (510 E. Memory Lane) are two extra-long aluminum slides – one 50 feet long, the other 30 feet. That’s pretty much all you’ll find in the way of playground features in this section of the park (a more fully appointed playground is located in the western end of the park, close to the Discovery Cube museum), but the sheer length and speed of the ride makes this overlooked section well worth a visit. The slides are located at the east end of the park, just north of the Santiago Creek Wildlife and Watershed Center.

fun ideas for kids

A whimsically designed metallic structure in Culver City Park offers kids an age-appropriate aerial challenge.

Whimsical Climbing

Featuring distinctive structures by the design firm Kompan – instantly recognizable because they look as much like art as play equipment – the playground at Culver City Park (9700 Jefferson Blvd.) is one of those tucked-away gems that never seems to get too crowded. The features of the whimsically designed main metallic structure are distinctly challenging, in essence inviting kids to tackle an aerial challenge course (albeit one that isn’t high enough to require ropes and harnesses). Another geometric structure serves as a mini bouldering gym, and reaching the top poses a serious challenge for kids and adults alike. Meanwhile, multiple spinning features are easily accessible for those who’d rather take a ride than conquer an obstacle.

The park also has a more traditionally designed play structure aimed at ages 5 and under, as well as a sand-and-water play area that attracts all ages on a hot day. It’s also home to a skate park that requires helmets, elbow and knee pads for participants, so you’ll need to come prepared with more than just a longboard.

Culver City Park is big and encompasses several different sections. To get to the playground, follow Duquesne Avenue past Jefferson and into the park, then park on the right-hand side of the street (do not continue driving up the hill). You’ll see the playground down a pathway to your right.

Climber’s Bonus Spot: Just a half-mile to the east on Jefferson Boulevard – at Hetzler Road – is the trailhead leading to the legendary (or infamous, depending on your attitude) Baldwin Hills Stairs. This imposing set of 282 incredibly steep steps is best suited to older kids (unless you’re keen on the idea of carrying an additional 30 pounds or so on your journey upward), but offers a thrilling sense of accomplishment and unbeatable 360-degree views of the L.A. Basin from the viewing platform at the top. You’ll also find public restrooms and a beautifully designed state park visitor center, which is usually open on weekends and well worth a visit.

Clever Equipment

fun ideas for kids

Central Park, hidden away near Facebook’s new L.A. outpost, features a clever, minimalist playscape and the nicest restrooms you’ll find in a public park.

As the Playa Vista development has steadily expanded to the east along Jefferson Boulevard, its public spaces have expanded as well. Hidden away behind the Playa Jefferson business campus (home to Facebook’s sleek new L.A. outpost) is Central Park (12405 E. Waterfront Dr., L.A.), an outdoor recreation area with playing fields, fountains, a gorgeous modern band shell for outdoor concerts and probably the nicest bathrooms you’ve ever encountered at a public park (located downstairs below the bandshell). The eight-acre park was designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture and also features a small but notable enclosed play area.

At first glance, the minimalist playscape with its green rubber mounds and shiny metallic climbing features appears to represent a classic example of form over function, without a whole lot for kids to actually do. But don’t underestimate its potential. Kids will enjoy the big see-saw, cool underground tunnel and rows of shiny metal pipes that double as a makeshift slide. And there’s no denying the park’s beautiful and unique design. The main drawback is the lack of shade or places for parents to sit within the playground itself, although you will find pleasant shaded benches outside the enclosed area. Check out the schedule of upcoming free concerts at http://playavista.com/events/ to make the most of your visit.

Aesthetic Bonus Spot: La Laguna de San Gabriel, an historic play area located within Vincent Lugo Park (South Ramona and Wells streets, San Gabriel), will prove captivating to imaginative and artistic kids with its beautiful and colorful dragon and sea monster play sculptures, designed by artist Benjamin Dominguez in 1965. If the look and feel of a playscape is as important to your kids as the swings and climbing structures, this is a spot you should visit.

fun ideas for kids

Mud is a big draw at Irvine’s Adventure Playground, which fortunately has hoses for washing off and nice restrooms for changing clothes.

Playground Adventure 

Adventure-seeking SoCal kids have reason to celebrate. Irvine’s Adventure Playground (1 Beech Tree Lane) finally reopened this spring after a five-year closure! It’s a beautiful place to spend the day, with native landscaping and shady pine trees around the perimeter. The play features are all still fairly shiny and new, including a whimsical castle-themed play structure with rope bridges and tunnels and giant building bricks kids can use to create their own forts and obstacle courses.

The biggest draw this summer will no doubt be the water pumps, which send water into a long ditch perfect for splashing around in and getting muddy. The park even provides toy trucks kids can send careening down the hill and into the water. Fortunately, the park also has hoses for washing off and nice restrooms for changing clothes.

Note that while the park is large and lovely and has a lot to offer, its promise of adventure is most likely to be fulfilled for kids under age 9.

Adventure Bonus Spot: Two of California’s three adventure playgrounds are located in Orange County – Irvine Adventure Playground and Huntington Beach Adventure Playground (7111 Talbert Ave.). Parents of older kids might find they prefer Huntington Beach’s playground to the one in Irvine, as it offers more thrills and hands-on opportunities, including paddle boarding across a pond, riding down a giant waterslide into a muddy pool of water and using real grown-up tools to put the finishing touches on treehouses. Choose the spot that fits your kids. Well worth the drive.

Erin Mahoney Harris is a mother of two living in Santa Monica. She’s the author of “Walking LA” and “Visit California Farms,” an agritourism guidebook. You can follow Erin on Twitter at @VisitCaliFarms. 

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