Splish Splash at Splash Pads, Splash Parks & Spray Grounds This Summer!
When I was a child, swimming pools and water fountains were distinct, separate entities. For immersion, you had to find a pool. Whether it was private or public, there were changing rooms and lifeguards and rules. (Unfortunately, the ocean wasn't an everyday option where I grew up.) Fountains were fun to watch – the water shot all over the place, and sometimes, you could stand in the mist blown your way by a helpful breeze. If you were really lucky – or your accompanying adult looked the other way – you might dip a toe in.
Children today occupy a whole new world of water play. Yes, pools still exist. And they are much improved, with features including "zero-depth entry" (a lovely, sloping walkway that allows even the smallest among us to stand no deeper than the knee); a "lazy river," where a current moves you along; and water slides of all shapes and sizes.
Even better, though, are the water areas known variously as splash parks, spray parks, splash pads, water playgrounds or -- my favorite -- "spraygrounds." These water play areas are (quite literally) popping up everywhere, serving as swimming pool alternatives that appeal to visitors of all ages. Parents of children who aren't quite yet water-safe can relax somewhat in that injury, if it happens, will likely be along the lines of a skinned knee, not a near-drowning incident. Even accomplished swimmers can enjoy the unpredictability of the spurting water and determine how wet they care to be: Feet? Legs? Arms? Back? Besides Houston's main attractions, the splash parks, like the one featured above, offer a great trip for the family!
Some pop-up fountains – yet another term – are in heavily trafficked public and professional spaces, while others are deliberately placed in children's parks. They may have cushioned surfaces, or concrete or granite pavers as a base. They may have interactive devices – jets that can be aimed and fired or spouts with manual controls – or they may be an arrangement of water plumes, embedded into the surface, that spout on a pre-programmed schedule, independent of the user(s) involved. No matter what they offer, they provide a welcome respite from a busy day of city sightseeing, or they can be an excursion unto themselves, worthy of inclusion on a full travel itinerary.
When I took my children to Atlanta a few springs ago, we capped two of our sightseeing days at the Fountain of Rings in Centennial Park. As the world's largest interactive fountain, in the shape of the famed Olympic rings, there was plenty of space for kids to run – and parents to sit. While the jets operated on their own system, the kids exulted in the sprays and (somewhat) willingly exited the fountain area to make way for one of the shows, which runs four times daily and syncs the water to music.
A similar experience can be had at one of Boston's attractions, the Rings Fountain in the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, just steps away from Faneuil Hall. A two-month renovation has just been completed, so the 64 nozzles, arranged in a series of rings, are up and running at full speed. It's a great location to recharge after a day of history.
An even more central pop-up fountain is in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square, a popular gathering place in the heart of the city. With a subway stop, parking underground, and access via Toronto PATH, an extensive subterranean walkway, the square is popular for its free entertainment and events. A bonus feature is the fountain itself, whose nozzles form two parallel lines.
If you're looking for more than a downtown diversion, the Kidstown Water Park, located just inside the fence of Toronto's High Park outdoor pool, will keep kids occupied for hours. Water dumps, sprays and squirts from buckets, rings and even animal figures. A wading pool and water slide provide added fun, and families can even picnic on a nearby grassy area.
Tucked in San Francisco's hip Mission District, an old playground is experiencing a rebirth that includes a brand-new splash pad. Mission Playground, home to the city's only public outdoor pool, has undergone a massive renovation to all its facilities, which include basketball and tennis courts, a soccer field, and a clubhouse, in addition to the playground. The splash pad, with "bubblers" and fountains that kids can activate, also boasts a colorful and artsy design that encourages imaginative play. (The outdoor pool's renovation is expected to be complete mid-summer.)
In Houston, both parents and kids can enjoy the Hermann Park Sprayground, conveniently located in the same park that is home to the the Houston Zoo and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Though this sprayground was opened in 1990, its blue rubber surface and fun water features of poles, sprays, palm trees and a spiral – not to mention the sand "beaches" adjacent to the water play space – keep it feeling modern. Numerous other options are located throughout the metro area, thanks to the generosity of Texas-based H-E-B Grocery Company, which has provided funding to the city's department of parks and recreation for new spraygrounds throughout the city. Visit The City of Houston's website for a complete listing.
If you're headed to Los Angeles, and the Pacific is a little too, well, big, you can try any one of a number of outdoor water play areas. Aidan's Place, in Westwood Park, isn't a full sprayground, but it is the second West Coast Universally Accessible Playground, meaning children of all abilities are able to join in active play. Here, misters embedded in the play structure help to keep kids cool. If you're headed to Hollywood, be aware that the pool at the North Hollywood Rec Center, which has an adjacent sprayground, is currently closed for renovation and reconstruction. It is projected to reopen in summer 2014.
On the opposite coast, visitors to New York City can make like locals and take advantage of that city's iconic outdoor spaces. In City Park alone, multiple playgrounds offer water features (The Ancient Playground, Tarr Family Playground, Wild West Playground, Rudin Family Playground). Perhaps the best opportunity to feel like a true city dweller, though, is found at Washington Square Park, in full view of Stanford White's marble arch. The Washington Square fountain was refurbished in 2009 (and relocated a bit, much to the dismay of some residents). While it's definitely old-school, with a central plume and some side spouts, there's something comforting – and a little naughty – about strolling into a city fountain.
No matter the location, playing in the water brings out the child in all of us.
(Photo credit: Robert Neff)