Playing up Anchorage: New book reviews playgrounds of Alaska’s biggest city

James Carlson is pretty discerning about swings and slides. He ought to be. James, 4, has visited every playground and elementary school in Anchorage with his mom, Colleen, author of the new book "133 Anchorage Playgrounds".

I met James and his mother one sunny afternoon to chat over the webbing of ropes strung in a pyramid at Westchester Lagoon's popular playground. That is, the Margaret Eagan Sullivan Park, found on page 8 of Carlson's North Coastal section of the book.

According to the review, the park gets "three stars" for the mountain views, access to walking trails and newer equipment for kids aged 2-12. It also has 10 parking spaces, picnic tables and access to a potty, which, as any parent of small children will attest, is critical information.

What James cared about, however, was hopping back and forth between the different structures, climbing on one, sliding down another, twisting in an effort to keep his balance on a third.

"This one was my favorite," he said, referring to the plastic hoop-like plaything that requires kids to wiggle their way in a graduated crawl, first up, then down.

"He calls this his 'ninja course'," Colleen chimed in as James struck a very ninja-like pose and then returned to his play.

Carlson, a former outdoor educator turned playground advocate, thought she knew Anchorage parks and playgrounds before she gave birth to James. Once she and her husband made the decision that she would stay home to raise their son, Carlson found it important for body and soul to get out of the house as much as possible, so she frequented her favorite nature-themed parks, then playgrounds, as James grew up. One week, she happened to meet the same dad at two different parks.

"We were discussing favorite play spaces our kids enjoyed, and finally he said, 'You should write a book about playgrounds and I would buy it,'" Carlson said.

She left the park that day thinking about how she could produce a book that reflected all the features parents might want. Things like stroller-friendly paths, bathrooms, accessible surfaces and directions from anywhere in town.

Figuring out an objective process was challenging. Carlson created then adapted several times a notebook containing area-specific playgrounds and elementary schools, and carried it with her. Highly organized, she plotted each on a map so she and James (and often friends) could visit multiple playgrounds on the same day.

Over the course of 7 months, Carlson and her small assistant crisscrossed the Anchorage Bowl in search of all 133 playgrounds and schools, spending time at each. James, of course, was always excited to find a new place to run and climb, she said, but he couldn't wrap his then 3-year-old head around the idea of a whole book about playgrounds.

"Really, what he cared about most was going to a new park we'd never seen before," Colleen reflects. And, of course, time spent with his mom.

Anchorage parks and playgrounds can be tough to find. Some are so small and tucked away in neighborhoods that parents new to town have a difficult time locating them. Some, like Margaret Eagan, have pseudo-names that only those of us who have been here long enough to learn them know the difference. Carlson took care of that aspect, too, listing nicknames alongside the official moniker. Been to Russian Jack Springs Park, aka "Polar Bear Park?" How about Bob and Arlene Cross Park? That one is known to many as the "Birdhouses Park."

The book, a self-published effort that took Carlson over a year to design, edit, and print, was released in June, and sales have been brisk. She hopes a wide demographic will utilize the guide as an effort to encourage children and adults to explore the amazing opportunities found within the 1,961 square miles of Anchorage's city limits.

"I truly hope all caregivers of children will become more familiar with and use these great places with kids," she told me. But there's more.

"There are such dedicated people who take care of and pay for the maintenance of these wonderful places; the Municipality (of Anchorage), Anchorage Park Foundation and Anchorage School District. We should support them by using these spaces."

When asked if she has future plans for other playground guides, Carlson said, "Maybe."

She's already taking notes to update the current book, finding the occupational hazard of such a project may be that she can't visit a playground anywhere without wondering how many people know about it.

"The good news is that in Anchorage, at least, there's so many great things happening in our parks," she said as James continued his circuitous route through the equipment at Westchester Lagoon. "There's a new skate park at the Polar Bear playground, Fish Creek Park is getting a remodel, and Turnagain Elementary is undergoing renovation…" She laughed at herself. "I guess I'll have to do more, won't I?"

Studies from organizations like the Children and Nature Network have shown that outdoor time benefits children in ways that aren't always tangible. Besides the obvious physical benefits of running, climbing, jumping and sliding, outdoor play also reaches kids and parents socially and emotionally. We slow down, focus on the little people who inhabit our world and unconsciously relax.

The philosopher Plato once said that we can "discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation."

Just think what we could discern after spending time at 133 playgrounds.

133 Anchorage Playgrounds

By Colleen Carlson; self-published and available on Carlson's website: https://squareup.com/store/anchorageplaygrounds. $16.95

Erin Kirkland is author of the book Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children and publisher of AKontheGo.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel.