Playground Themes and Childhood Dreams

In working toward my goal of visiting, and exploring the area surrounding, every Metro station in the WMATA system, I’ve done some research on what interesting things can be found in each neighborhood. (I’m convinced there’s at least something interesting everywhere.) When I looked at online maps of Marvin Gaye Park Trail near the Capitol Heights Metro, I learned that I could expect a trail running mostly along Watts Branch (a tributary stream from the Anacostia River), a few visual art pieces in tribute to the musical artist who hailed from that part of DC, and a series of small playgrounds for little ones to enjoy.

Frog-shaped climbing structure at a playground along the Marvin Gaye Park Trail

Frog-shaped climbing structure at a playground along the Marvin Gaye Park Trail

I had not known, until I actually walked the trail, that a few of these playgrounds would be nature-themed, using adorable play equipment from the company GameTime’s PlayTrails line of products. In the playgrounds I saw, the shorter pieces of climbing equipment are a frog and a butterfly, the taller climbers and poles are evergreen trees and cattails, and the seats are leaves and mushrooms. Each playground includes a sign containing natural history facts and suggested play activities that combine movement with conceptualizing individual parts of nature.

A little further along the trail (in the direction away from the Capitol Heights Metro) is Planters Grove, an homage to the peanut (and its sponsor, Planters Nuts, owned by Kraft Foods). Here, the column-surrounded park itself, a planter, and a bench are peanut-shaped.

A person hiking the Marvin Gaye Park Trail could pack a lunch and eat a salad of lettuce and spinach leaves while sitting on a leaf, some mushrooms while sitting on a mushroom, and a peanut butter sandwich while sitting on a peanut.

Playgrounds can be found everywhere, and for good reason, but I’m especially enchanted by tot lots and play areas with themed equipment that reinforces the content area of a surrounding park or museum. For other examples, the National Zoo has play structures that allow kids to crawl through tunnels like a prairie dog, and the College Park Aviation Museum has an airplane-themed playground outside the building.

An Internet search for images of quirky or unique playgrounds yields pictures of anthropomorphized trees, tilted houses, giant spiders and small dinosaurs, fruits and vegetables, ships and lighthouses, and lots of bright colors. Unsurprisingly, there are Pinterest boards devoted to the topic.

This is not to say that a more standard playground can’t lend itself to the limitless bounds of children’s imaginations. (In my preschool teaching days, I once saw some three- and four-year-olds use the school playground for an elaborate scheme that combined the Passover story with kittens). However, a natural or cultural site with a specific content area can make its subject relevant to its younger visitors by themed play opportunities, such as toys inside the building and playgrounds outdoors.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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