For many of us a visit to the local park can evoke instant childhood memories. Perhaps it’s captaining one of the craft that scurries around the boating lake. Or, being a brave explorer and crawling
on hands and knees, in pursuit of a big hairy caterpillar…
hese days, our green spaces continue to provide the perfect antidote to busy family life. From city gardens to the natural expanses of country parks, wherever you live, summer is the ideal time to give little ones the chance to let their imagination fly.
You only have to take a look at some of the inspiring outdoor play options that are springing up, to see that their contribution to a young child’s healthy development is now widely recognised. Existing sites have also been upgraded. “We have improved a number of our playgrounds to provide a safe, stimulating and exciting environment for play,” says Phil Newcombe, a spokesperson for Guildford Borough Council, which has invested £475,000 in early learning, parks and open spaces during the past five years.
Helen Wallace, learning coordinator at Alice Holt Forest Park, sees a growing number of families with young children discovering new joys each time they visit. Whether it’s building confidence by testing their physical abilities, using their senses to look, touch, listen and smell, or being creative. Helen says, “There’s plenty for the under fives to do.” She adds, “There’s nothing better than getting out into the woods to enjoy fresh air and fun – and it doesn’t cost the earth!”
If you’re looking for ways to fill the long school holidays, for less, you won’t have to look far to find parks that offer everything from teddy bears picnics and picture making, to animal handling and bushcraft. Some have gone a step further, by creating a permanent pre-school classroom. Here, come rain or shine, games, story-telling and other activities take place in the great outdoors. Many city parks have introduced wildlife areas to focus young minds on protecting precious natural habitats, and numerous self-led trails will tempt even reluctant walkers into stepping-out.
For many though, it can be the simple pleasure of flying a kite or feeding the ducks that makes a trip to the park special. And few would disagree that a safe environment, in which to learn to ride a bike, or to gain water confidence by splashing in a paddling pool, has real benefits.
“Playing in the park is good for social skills and for making new friends,” confirms Monique du Plessis. Her children, Daniella, aged eight, and Zander, aged six, are regular visitors to local play areas, after school and at weekends. And this summer, she’s looking forward to six month-old Fin starting to find his feet there too.
But it’s not just the younger members of the family who get to have all the fun. New mums can often sign up for post-natal exercises classes, and if there’s an onsite café, it’s a good excuse to take time out for a coffee and a chat too.
Whether it’s a new weekly routine, an interesting holiday attraction, or a chance to feel part of the local community, as Percy the Park Keeper says, “The Park is a wonderful place, whatever the season.” And who’d argue with that?
Alpha Road Gardens
Teddington, TW11 0QG
This small play area is ideal for toddlers with no dogs allowed. A circular tarmac path around the edge is great for cycling practice, with a grassy area for picnics. Open from 7.30am, Sunday 9am.
Violet Hill Gardens
Nr. Abercorn Place, St John’s Wood, NW8
Small yet perfectly formed, this walled garden and play area is a hidden retreat for young families. There’s a grassy area for picnics and a toilet with baby changing facilities. Open from 8am.
Coram’s Fields and the Harmsworth Memorial Playground
Bloomsbury, WC1N 1DN
This large, well-established park’s playground for younger children includes a sandpit and paddling pool. Meet a whole menagerie of animals at the city farm and enjoy a break at the café. Open from 9am.
Lammas Park Ealing, W13 9NJ
The free indoor play centre is an all-weather bonus here. Outside, swings and a sandpit complete with wooden playhouse and slide provide more fun. While for quieter moments there’s a nature reserve.
Myatt’s Fields Park Camberwell, SE5
Strike up the band for this Victorian park with its community feel. The paddling pool and sandpit are perennial favourites, or enjoy the lawns and wildlife area. More activities for the under fives are run at The Mulberry Centre. Open from 7.30am.
Newington Green Park N16 9PX
Following its make-over, this park has some imaginative play equipment for younger children. Great cafés nearby make it easy to see why it’s also popular with parents.
Paddington Street Gardens
Marylebone, W1U 4EF
The bright stimulating play area with its multi-activity units keeps tots amused and there are picnic benches for lunch, or grab one of the free deckchairs on the garden’s main lawn. The playground shelter is a gathering point and a children’s toilet is available. Open from 7am.
St. James’s Park – Wellington
Barracks Playground SW1A 2BJ
Little ones love this playground’s enormous sand pit with its stone bridge. Thirsts can be quenched at the refreshment stand whilst listening to the regimental bands warming up nearby. Toilets have baby changing facilities. Open from 5am.
Room to Roam
Kensington Gardens & the Princess Diana Memorial Playground
Black Lion Gate, Hyde Park,
One of the best for toddlers, there are baby swings, sand areas and wigwams, and a lovely grassy area for picnics. If you can tear yourselves away, explore the Sensory Garden and the magical Sunken Gardens. Open from 6am.
Richmond Park TW10 5HS
London’s largest open space, the Park’s Kingston Gate Playground has been designed with under fives in mind. Plenty of car parking and picnic facilities everywhere and there are cycle maps available from the park office. Open from 7am.
Park opening times and some facilities may be seasonal, so it’s best to check before visiting to avoid disappointment.