Adventure Playground: Orange County's Park for Free-range Kids
I had been hearing rave reviews about Orange County’s Adventure Playground—the so-called free-range playground—ever since I first moved to the area. The hype around this place makes it sound something like a time machine, throwing back to a day of mud puddles in the vacant lot. I finally loaded two kids, a bag of snacks, extra clothes, and beach towels into my car and headed to Irvine to see what the fuss was all about.
Here’s one difference from your average playground: After parking in the free University Park Library lot, we were immediately greeted by a friendly staff member at the entrance. We then entered the little kid wonderland to find giant Legos, huge toy tractors, mobile plastic water toys, a giant chess board—and of course the irresistible muddy puddles that have become the park’s signature attraction.
My four-year-old daughter quickly spotted the Legos, where throngs of kids (and a few moms and dads) played architect with the massive pile of bricks, which were truly larger than life. Parents of toddlers be warned: These are not the sturdiest blocks I’ve ever seen. They came tumbling down twice when my kids were playing, once landing directly on top of my daughter. It seems that along with an old-fashioned approach to entertainment comes a certain degree of old-fashioned risk. On the plus side, staff came rushing out with ice packs to address bumps and bruises.
Happily, my daughter made a fast recovery, allowing us to keep exploring this expansive, unstructured playground. A muddy river lies across from a giant wooden play structure resembling a fort, with four cement slides, a rope climbing area, a tree house, and an American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course. And dirt—plenty of dirt. Be sure to bring a change of clothes for your kids, because they will get very dirty, in that cartoon-like, kid who’s been playing outside all day sort of way.
Unlike most SoCal play spaces, this one has quite literally no boundaries. Free-form play, whether it be rowing through a muddy stream, building castles, or splattering paint all over the shelter walls and floors, is actually encouraged here. It's a throwback to my own childhood in the 1980s, when we could run through neighbors’ yards, collecting whatever friends happened to be outside as we went along—and there were no electronics to distract us from our own imaginations. This playground is one of just three of its kind in the entire country, so coming to this one is truly a unique experience. Call it nostalgia, but I found the whole no-holds-barred attitude completely refreshing. And my kids couldn't agree more.
Both of my kids went crazy over the loud pop music blaring out of oversize speakers on the playground, prompting them to get their wiggles out every few minute, even when they were covered in mud. Kids can also explore pint-sized water pumps, ping-pong tables, and a giant sandbox. Activities like painting, hula hooping, and jump roping are held weekly on a rotating basis. The day we visited was painting day, and my daughter could paint all over the floors and the walls—which was absolutely allowed.
Pack a picnic to eat at one of the plentiful picnic tables, since your kids will not want to leave. I also suggest bringing a towel and a change of shoes and clothes since, no matter what you do, kids will get dirty. Adventure Playground was definitely worth the long drive to Irvine for us—next time we’re thinking we’ll check out the one in Huntington Beach!
Photos by author