I was on the phone last week with a writer from back East who wanted all my best tips for exploring the Last Frontier with young people.
"OK, what's one of the do-not-miss things to do in Alaska with kids?" she asked, her fingers ticka-tapping over the mobile phone line. I'm sure she was expecting me to say, "Explore a glacier" or "Go flightseeing."
Imagine her surprise when I responded with, "Go to the local playground."
More than a place to take the kids when they need a chance to run around, playgrounds provide community perspective, especially for visitors who are only here for a while. For example, where else can you discover that your Lower 48 kids, stymied by the near-constant daylight of summer and unable to sleep, will have plenty of company at the local park well past bedtime? After all, most Alaska parents operate under the mantra of, "They can always sleep later."
Kids can learn about wildlife when a moose wanders across the parking lot or soccer field. Sometimes, they'll even get to stare at a swooping bald eagle — something playgrounds in Akron or Albany don't offer.
I even outlined my favorite grilled salmon recipe to a visiting dad who whipped out a tablet and typed all the steps so he'd have it ready for the fish he hoped to catch on the Kenai Peninsula.
Where kids connect
Playgrounds are gathering spaces where kids connect without the confines of an organized tour or crowded family schedule and parents can breathe a sigh of relief that their youngsters are amused on their own terms for a while. Alaska summers are so packed with good fun that it can be hard for all of us to remember that children need time to be themselves, in a space designed specifically for them — without grownups directing their every move.
A 2014 study by the University of Colorado found that free play opportunities —unscheduled, spontaneous, free-thinking times — provide a wealth of benefits to a child's social skills, and emotional maturity. The inherent value of play, with its daydreaming, risk-taking, and discovery, is no more important than on a trip to someplace new.
During most of our wanderings in and out of Alaska, we gravitate to playgrounds. It's a chance for our son to hang with other kids and for my husband and I to take stock of our adventures. Often we'll stop by a local store and picnic while we play, giving us the mental and physical energy to carry on the rest of the day. I'll chat up the other parents, too, asking about their favorite places for family-friendly activities, and I've never been disappointed with the results.
Today's playgrounds are far more intricate than the metal-and-wood structures that made our parents gasp in terror as we hung upside down from the monkey bars. Often the result of community efforts, many are constructed with design involvement of kids and sweat equity of an entire town, showcasing history, industry, or natural features that speak to the uniqueness of each place. Considered the crowning jewel of a community, these playgrounds are destinations unto themselves — must-see attractions right up there with the whales and glaciers.
Kyle Cundy, project manager for Leathers and Associates, a company with offices in New York and Florida that oversaw the planning and construction of 10 such Alaska playgrounds, says her favorite part of 25 years on the job has been witnessing the spirit of collective cooperation by young and young-at-heart.
"Each playground is so uniquely a part of the community," she told me. "Kids brainstorm what they'd like to see, and our planners get together and see how we can bring it to life. In the end we've created a destination playground."
We have climbed a wall with a painted backdrop of Denali in Talkeetna; clamored over boulders and up a net in Homer; dug in the dirt in Girdwood, and driven a wooden car in Haines. At each different playground, our family has learned a little more about who lives, works, and plays there.
And that is as worthwhile a goal for family travel as I've ever found.
Alaska’s destination playgrounds
Anchorage has a wide range of parks and playgrounds detailed in the book "133 Anchorage Playgrounds" by Colleen Carlson. Among them:
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and is publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska and beyond.