Most days, his mother leaves for work at 7:30am, and my son is mine to mind until she returns home sometime after 3pm. To keep from just sitting around the house—which can make you feel a little like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining—I try to get B outside as much as possible, particularly when it is warm enough. With summer, of course, it’s always warm enough, and there are no limits on our license to ramble the area’s playgrounds, parks, fields, and really any other kind of space that suits the 3-year-old imagination.
If I were a stay-at-home mom, I might have a network of other moms to rely on for play-dates. Without that resource, I am fully aware going in that I will be playing almost as much as my son, so I attempt to find activities that B and I can both enjoy.
I’ve compiled the following short list of our favorite spots as a resource for play-minded parents, desperate stay-at-home dads, or anybody else involved in the war on Digital Childhood. Admittedly, my picks are highly subjective, but I wanted them to reflect both our personalities and tastes, especially my son’s—my happiness is predicated on his.
Outings can be exhausting, but as a result of our forage for fun my son and I have become best buddies. As B says multiple times a day, “Daddy, let’s play!”
Forest Hills Park
Where it’s at: Forest Hills Avenue (off Cherry Avenue).
Best features: Of the three city spray-grounds (the others are at Greenleaf and Belmont parks), this is my favorite, and maybe my favorite place to play period—I’ve told other parents about Forest Hills so much that I feel like its evangelist. Only a year old, it is a water wonderland with almost 20 different apparatuses, including a bucket high up in the air that dumps every 10 seconds and a wall of water that my son makes me walk through with him every time. Some of the park’s simplest features, though, can be entrancing. For instance, B loves a little spigot in one corner that billows a 2′ geyser.
The park also has two covered picnic shelters—one with bathrooms—and a playground with two sections, one for kids who are 2-5 years of age, the other for kids 5 and older. There’s always plenty to do.
Watch out for: the slippery surface of the spray-ground, especially if your child is barefoot. I always make sure B wears his Crocs so he never falls, but I’ve seen other kids try to stop when running and really bite the dust. One other slight complaint: There’s not much shade and the picnic shelters are too far away to monitor children.
Great place to meet: a ton of parents and their kids. On a warm, sunny day there’s a lot going on, but, unlike Greenleaf’s spray-ground, it never feels cramped, just alive.
Fun factor [1-10 scale]: 10 absolutely. It’s impossible to visit this park in the summer and not get completely soaking wet, because the kids are having so much fun running through the spraying water that you’ll want to jump in yourself.
Clark Elementary School
Where it’s at: Accessible from Tufton Avenue (off Monticello Avenue) or Belmont Avenue.
Best features: Most playgrounds offer only slight variations on the time-honored features, but Clark’s is different. It includes a three-in-one slide, with each surface uniquely shaped to thrill, a good-sized rubber mountain for climbing, and a long concave bridge that connects it to the rest of the playground. For parents, there are a couple trees just off to the side that shade park benches. The importance of this cannot be overstated. For some reason, park planners always clear-cut whatever trees might have existed where a playground now stands. Why not let a tree or two stand, I often wonder, thus providing the actual play areas with some cover from the sun, particularly the plastic slides that are scorching by noon?
In addition to the stand-alone play-set, there is a concrete terrace level with a life-sized checker/chess board painted on its surface, and above that a vast paved expanse with a basketball hoop and a fitness area that kids can mess around on. Another feature is a ginormous color-coded map of the U.S. painted on the blacktop. Tucked behind the main school building is a smaller but inventive play-set crafted for little children. It’s easy to spend a lot of time there, too.
Watch out for: nearby traffic. The play-set is right by the street, and while there’s a high chain-link fence, sometimes the gate is open.
Great place to meet: neighborhood kids. There’s usually one or two riding around on a bike or shooting hoops. Overall, it’s usually pretty quiet.
Fun factor: 8. There’s so much to do here that my kid loves it, and I just try and keep up with him.
Where it’s at: About a mile off Meade Avenue, located at the end of Chesapeake Street.
Best feature: the Rivanna River. There is a good-sized playground here, but we spend most of our time near or down in the water. In the early spring I would take B down to look at how ferociously high the river was because of the heavy rains, but usually it is really low, just a foot or two in many spots.
On a recent visit, B headed straight to the river and was soaked in a matter of minutes. Soon enough, he located a stick and was throwing it around, expecting me to retrieve it so we could do it all over again. The sun shone brightly, and a breeze rippled the surface of the slow moving water as I stood in its midst. Eventually, he lost interest in the stick, wandered over, looked up at me and spoke. “The water is good, isn’t it?”
Watch out for: the water. I always keep a close eye on B, especially when we are down in the river. The playground poses no threats. Perhaps the only concern are the dogs that travel the Rivanna Trail with their owners, but I’ve had no real cause for fear.
Great place to meet: On a nice day Riverview is a lively spot, with its playground, benches (picnic or otherwise), open field, and the adjacent Rivanna Trail. There’s always somebody walking around or jogging, along with a few moms and their kids on the play-set.
Fun factor: Even if you never get in the water, this can still be a fun place to play. With river experience: 10. Without: 7.
Cale Elementary School
Where it’s at: Avon Street Extended, behind the school.
Best features: Cale has what I consider the best playground in the area. It contains two different play-sets, featuring a large one with two towering slides encased in orange tunnels. There is also a small zip-line of sorts (which is too much for my 3-year-old to handle), a big rope spider-web for climbing, two sets of swings, two full-length basketball courts with rims that are only 8" tall (fun for dads to dunk on), and a combo baseball/soccer field. An excellent view of Carter Mountain offers a splendid backdrop to the play.
Watch out for: the sheer breadth of the larger play-set. Some of this is clearly only meant for kids 5 and older.
Great place to meet: maybe a family or two. Sometimes we are the only ones there, but it depends on what time you go. On some Saturdays, there are youth soccer matches on the field, so the play-sets are a little busier. Also, a church regularly meets on Sunday mornings and afterwards their kids invade.
Fun factor: 8. With all the variety, it’s impossible to get bored here.
Walnut Creek Park
Where it’s at: About 15 minutes south of town, it is accessible from either 29S or Route 20. From there, take Route 708 (Red Hill Road), and then turn south onto Route 631 (Old Lynchburg Road). The park is 1/2 mile on the left.
Best features: Its main draw is a beautiful lake that covers 45 water acres. Sometimes we go and just stand near the edge and throw rocks, and then hike over to a wooded playground. But now that summer is here, our desination is the sandy man-made beach that is cordoned off by ropes at the 6′ deep mark. There are also lifeguards present.
Watch out for: lake critters. I noticed quite a few sunfish swimming around my legs and once I thought I felt one nip at my shin.
Great place to meet: all sorts of people when the beach is open. When it’s not, the lake is quite desolate. Over at the playground (which is close to the beach) we usually only encounter a parent or two and their kids.
Fun factor: with the beach, 9—there’s something exhilarating about playing in water that is teeming with life (if a little daunting), and having lifeguards around is reassuring. Without the beach, it’s still a 7. B enjoys unbridled nature.
Where it’s at: off Meade Avenue and Chesapeake Street, behind the parking lot for Onesty Family Aquatic Center.
Best features: Its playground has two play-sets, one for toddlers, and another for older kids (although B likes both). The play-set for the older kids has a plastic climbing mountain on one side that’s fun to conquer. A picnic shelter separates the two play areas and provides excellent cover for parents and a good spot to keep a close eye on the kids.
There’s also a small creek that runs under the paved pathway that is perfect for catching crayfish. On a recent trip with a cup and a bucket, we nabbed four within 20 minutes, including one as big as an Outback shrimp. “Look at that,” I said, as he peered into the cup, and then leapt back.
Watch out for: a tan slide on the bigger play-set that is among the steepest I’ve seen. My son is too daunted to take it on, but it is great for rolling stuff down.
Great place to meet: a couple moms and their kids. It’s generally quiet and unpopulated except for mid-morning visits from a local daycare that are nevertheless unobtrusive.
Fun factor: “I love creeks,” B shouted after one visit, and, taking into account this part of the experience Meade is a blast, maybe even a 9. Without, it drops to a 7.
Where it’s at: at the confluence of Stonehenge Avenue, Rialto Street and Druid Avenue.
Best features: The first year of my son’s life we lived within walking distance of Belmont Park. I remember dipping his toes in its diminutive spray-ground when he was just a couple months old, so perhaps this place holds some sentimental value. We still regularly visit, though, despite moving away. The park is more than the sum of its attractions—the small spray-ground or the full-length basketball court or the fun enough playground. What I truly appreciate is its vastness and layout. At 3.1 acres, it’s quite a large park with giant oak trees, lots of green grass and a hill to roll around on, just a nice place to have an easygoing time.
Watch out for: traffic. The park is surrounded by roads and is traversed by a city bus. The whole park slopes in the direction of Rialto and it’s easy for a kid—at least mine—to get a head of steam going towards the street.
Great place to meet: moms and a few of their kids. There is rarely anyone playing basketball, and at times the park is surprisingly empty. Due to its location behind a small market, there are sometimes one or two inebriated people under the picnic shelter, but it is way off in a corner of the park.
Fun factor: 8. Last time we visited, we simply took an inflatable bouncy ball, and kicked it around the basketball court, then the playground, and then went back over to the court and the nearby hill. After about an hour-and-a-half we were exhausted and ready to go home and take a nap—the both of us.
Hilltop Berry Farm & Winery
Where it’s at: From Charlottesville, take I-64W to Crozet Exit #107, turn left onto 250W, then left again onto 151 South (as if you were heading to Wintergreen). Go 10 miles, turn left onto Route 612, go across the bridge and up the hill, then turn left at 2800 Berry Hill Rd.
Best features: There are plenty of area places to pick fruit, but Hilltop is easily my favorite. Out in Nelson County, it is only a mile from Wintergreen Resort but off the road enough that you feel lost in its rolling hills. And for one month in the summer—from July 16 to August 14—there are endless rows of ripe blackberries to pick that are like the grapes in the Land of Canaan—giant, juicy and sweet. Gorging ourselves on the fruit is not only delicious but has made for great pictures, B’s face dripping with dark blackberry resin.
Watch out for: sun exposure. Unlike a wild blackberry patch, there are no thorns and no threat of snakes, but make sure you bring sunscreen and a sunhat for everyone. Another word of warning: Make sure your kid’s not wearing a shirt you really care about ruining because it will likely be covered by blackberry juice.
Great place to meet: families also there to pick berries. The hosts of the farm are extremely polite and kid-friendly.
Fun factor: 10. It’s a great time for both parents and children. Of course, Hilltop is primarily a winery, so if you’re able to, take your partner and maybe she’ll agree to drive so you can relax and sip wine (I’m partial to the Mountain Apple variety) under the covered patio while the kids frolic amongst the berries.