It happens to every parent or caregiver. You intend to visit the museum or library, but you get stuck for hours at the playground outside. The weather is sublime, birds are soaring overhead, the kids are having the time of their life. Why turn this idyllic moment into a battle of loading up the stroller and forcing the children indoors for an “educational” experience?
As a lover of history and childhood education, I say you can have it both ways. Stories of urban development and urban planning; visions of conservation and efforts of man to incorporate nature and concrete, art and utility – is this not the essence of manmade structures intended to divert and entertain our children?
I scoured the landscapes within the city limits of San Diego and found these six gems of youthful divertissement that satisfy my strict criteria for good playgrounds – large play structures, no sand, free admission. Free parking (FP) and public restrooms (PR) are always a bonus. No other top ten list on your favorite crowdsourcing app is going to come up with this list because, honestly, some of these wonderful playgrounds are not frequented by the yelping millenial demographic. They are located in a diversity of neighborhoods – diverse history, architecture and culture. At some of these playgrounds, you are more than likely to bump into someone (or have your kids make a new friend) that doesn’t look like you and may not speak English as their first language. I like that.
Located off Park Avenue just south of the Science Center in Balboa Park, (1) Pepper Grove Park (FP, PR) boasts golf course-grade lawns, gorgeous groves surrounding picnic tables and a large selection of play equipment for every age range. While admiring the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of the California tower and the domed Museum of Man across the valley, you can also enjoy one of the best views of airplanes as they fly overhead preparing to land two miles away. Balboa Park began as a city park in 1868 and was further developed to host the grand California-Panama exhibition in 1915, which commemorated the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal. The tremendous feat that connected the east and west coasts of the U.S. by water transformed a five-month, treacherous journey by sea into a two week sail. California was no longer an island, separated from the East Coast by an ocean of plains and mountains. A modern marvel, this revolution in transportation deserved a party. The 100-year-old buildings for that party are now museums and exhibition spaces. Balboa Park is one of the most-visited places in San Diego for tourists, so if you’re visiting from out of town, you’ll likely need a quiet area of respite off the beaten track from the maddening crowds of El Prado promenade. Disclaimer: There is an area that contains sand, but this can easily be avoided. 2200 Park Blvd., San Diego, CA 92101
Far from downtown San Diego and typical tourist attractions is sleepy (2) Lake Murray Playground Project (FP, Porta-potty) neighborhood park. This playground is a true labor of love and hard work from this suburban community, which raised the funds to replace the aging structures. A circular paved path and an open grassy area make this new park ideal for getting in an exercise routine while the kids play. We’ve been known to spend several hours here, taking in the breeze and the lake views while gazing at the mountains close by. Like many of the parks on this list, weekends find the park packed with birthday parties and pick-up games. Lake Murray area is the gateway to San Diego’s accessible wilderness. From the playground, the pathways surrounding the lake are stroller accessible. If you get the urge for a real hike (not stroller accessible), the trailhead at Cowles Mountain, San Diego’s highest point, is only 1 mile away. 7083 Murray Park Dr, San Diego, CA 92119
(3) Waterfront Park (PR) stands where, until a few years ago, an asphalt parking lot hosted visitors and employees of the landmark Spanish Revival style San Diego City and County administration building. I remember those days – we walked across the parking lot on our way to apply for our infant’s passport as heat radiated off the black top and melted off the stroller tires. Not quite melted, but the new underground parking arrangement below the park is certainly an improvement. In fact, many areas along San Diego’s waterfront have seen an upgrade over the last few years. This park was designed for an all-day playdate. The most popular attraction on warm day is the water feature comprised of two vast, shallow ponds and the arched fountains that feed them. And you won’t be breaking the rules if you splash around – the fountains were designed for play. Individual play structures are scattered among the trees and grass. There’s always a crowd on the slanted merry-go-round, so if kids can’t find a spot to grab on, there is plenty more to divert their attention. From Waterfront Park, a walk across Harbor Drive brings you to the Embarcadero walkway and unfettered access to the Star of India Maritime Museum, the U.S.S. Midway Museum and, further south, Seaport Village and more grassy improvements. We’re more likely to walk a few blocks inland to find an authentic cappuccino in Little Italy. Either way, Waterfront Park is central to everything downtown. Parking is plentiful but not free. 1400-1496 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92101
In the shadow of San Diego’s Bay Bridge, (4) Chicano Park is loaded with history. Californians know this region was claimed by Spain, then a part of Mexico before it became a territory of the United States. After native languages, Spanish was the first language for centuries. Having spent most of my life in other regions of the country and, indeed, on other continents, this aspect of American history is often an afterthought. At Chicano Park, it’s brought to the forefront with a gallery of murals blanketing the pillars supporting the massive overpasses, highlighting the role of hispanics in local history and current society. Not only does the park contain play structures for children, the skate park under the bridge attracts older kids for more age appropriate fun. After expending energy, wait in line at Las Cuatro Milpas (1587 Logan Ave), where you can experience the best tortilla of your life (along with the rest of the hoards vying for a plate of Mexican traditional cooking). Then patronize Tocumbo (1900 Main St) where homemade popsicles (paletas) can be enjoyed while frolicking in the water feature. 2018 National Ave., San Diego, CA 92113
Though I don’t live in City Heights, this is my haunt. Multilingual and multicultural, small local restaurants and grocery stores are treasure troves for the palate. This is the San Diego of today, a rich mosaic that has welcomed the immigrant and refugee for decades. From the arrival of Vietnamese fleeing Saigon in the 1970s to the South Sudanese of today, all are creating a legacy in this part of San Diego. One block south of University Ave on 38th Street is the newish (5) Park De La Cruz (FP, PR, R) at Cherokee Point. With a gorgeous lawn, picnic tables and large play structures, when I stumbled upon this playground I wondered how I could have missed it. My suggestion – find your international food of choice in City Heights and get it to-go. Picnic at the playground where kids will want to while away the afternoon. 3803 38th Street, San Diego, CA 92105
The (6) Nature Exploration Area (FP, PR) near Morley Field in Balboa Park is not your typical playground. In fact, there are no prefabricated metal or plastic structures, just piles of logs, palm branches, rocks and other wonderments of nature ready to be enjoyed by children of all ages. This playground exemplifies current trends in parenting – encouraging exploration, creativity and unguided play in a sustainable, cost-effective environment outdoors. The park frequently replenishes the grounds with fresh branches, pinecones and the like. On any given day you can see the makings of a teepee or lean-to shelter, a woven basket or a fire pit that has yet to see a flame. I’ve written about this ‘playground’ before, where we are regulars. We often follow play time with a nature walk on the trail nearby, imagining a wadi in Morocco or hunting safari in Tanzania. Bonus: Cross-country competitions are often held in the park and the race trail passes right by the nature exploration area. 2221 Morley Field Dr, San Diego, CA 92104 Walk through the tennis courts, past the public restroom and down a slight slope. The play area has a small sign and is surrounded by logs.
If you have a favorite playground that meets the criteria leave a note in the comments. We’ll be sure to stop by for a visit!
Criteria: Address in the city of San Diego (not Coronado, Chula Vista, Santee, etc); good play structures; no sand; FREE.