Play is important work! Ditch the tablets, grab the kids, and explore the best parks the Des Moines area has to offer. These seriously fun parks are made with imagination in mind — for kids from one to 92!
A little prep goes a long way when planning a park date. Little ones (and hey, their parents, too!) tire quickly in the Iowa heat and humidity, so remember your fuel for fun. Fill those water bottles (lots of ice helps!), snag the sunscreen (and depending on the park, bug spray!), and load the diaper bag (nobody wants to leave because of an emergency change!).
If your crew is anything like mine, playing leads to big-time appetites. We love non-meltable snacks like crackers, Goldfish, and fruit snacks for older kids, and squeezable fruit pouches for the toddlers.
Make it a Meal
Have picnics on your summer bucket list? No need to get fancy — kids love the adventure of eating outside. After a morning filled with exploring, throw a blanket on the park lawn, or hunker down at a picnic table. Bring whimsy to your lunch with a little imagination. Instead of inventing a special meal, get creative with some character play.
My boys love pretending to be space rangers on a mission — and their eyes light up when I join the fun. Suddenly, PB&J sandwiches become galactic grub that needs to be eaten to save the planet, and grapes are energy-giving special space fruits for conquering the spaceship — er, the slide.
Give them Space
Encourage independent play. While being a hands-on mom is important, giving little ones space to safely explore on their own is key, too. The temptation to helicopter is real (believe me, my husband can attest that I’m working on this…) but taking a seat on the bench can give kids the confidence to finally climb the rockwall on their own or the bravery to say hi and make a new playground friend. Just make sure they stay in your line of sight!
My six-year-old was leery about mastering the monkey bars, but a little time to himself while I pushed his little brother on the swing gave him the determination he needed to conquer the playground. Imagine my surprise when I looked up to see my previously struggling son zipping across the bars. It was so fun to celebrate his success and cheer on his new-found independence!
These are a few of my family’s must-visit spots — but make sure to sneak a peek at the full list Des Moines’ public parks here.
Ankeny Miracle Park 310 NW School Street, Ankeny
This dynamic playground has more than 14,000 square feet of fun for children of all needs and abilities. It features inventive, out-of-the box equipment, including roller tables, sway gliders, and a sensory play center — all at wheelchair transfer height. The ground is made of a soft rubberized, latex-free surface — and there’s even an inclusive Miracle League baseball field, too. (Restrooms and concession area are also available.)
Union Park 725 Thompson Ave., Des Moines
This beloved “rocketship” park has been entertaining families for generations. It also includes a free children’s water play area with zero depth entry and water features, basketball and tennis courts, two enclosed shelters, one open-air shelter, a playground and the kicker: the historic Heritage Carousel. With only a 50-cent admission, this will sure to be on your family’s must-visit list, too. A stroll through the Union Park Floral Garden is a must as well. (Bring your phone — it’s Instagram-friendly!)
Ashley Okland Star Playground 5300 Indianola Rd., Des Moines
The Ashley Okland Star Playground is an all-inclusive playground located within Ewing Park on the southeast side of Des Moines. It features more than 50 unique play elements, featuring adaptive playground equipment for kids who have special needs. (Ewing Park is Des Moines’ largest park with two open-air shelters, disc golf course, trail, pond, lilac arboretum, Children’s Forest, and lots of shade!)
Walker Johnson Park 9000 Douglas Ave., Urbandale
This park has it all, including multiple inventive, kid-approved playgrounds. Don’t forget to take a spin down the metal slide that’s built into a hill. This park features a baseball diamond, open play areas, public art, fishing pond, skate park, tennis, and trails. If you want to hunker down, this is the place to visit — it boasts picnic areas, shelters, and tables, too.
West Des Moines
Raccoon River Park 2500 Grand Ave., West Des Moines
Treat yourself to an outdoors excursion without ever leaving the city. More than 600 acres of parkland provide recreational fun for the whole family. It includes Blue Heron Lake – a scenic no-wake lake with a 500-foot-long beach, which is open from 10:30 a.m. until sunset. Bring your poles — there’s a fishing pier, too. Also included: playground, picnic shelters, soccer and softball complexes, trail, nature lodge, dog park, and archery facility.