Where kids can play in Denver, from Adventure Forest to Paco Sanchez Park

Nothing can touch Adventure Forest.

Well, kids can, quite literally. They can climb on it, over it and through it, navigating the maze of metal tunnels and rope bridges, or riding zip lines that spill into bouncy nets. Its tattoo-like vines of hand-lettered poetry wind through the 500-foot-long aerial course, adding a bit of magic to its scenic, weathered perches.

In terms of creative play in the metro area,  Adventure Forest is the coolest thing around.

“I’m always looking for an excuse to come in here,” said Kimber Kuhl, senior manager of communications at the Children’s Museum Denver at Marsico Campus, as she climbed the winding wooden stairs of Adventure Forest.

We wouldn’t expect Kuhl to say anything else, given her job. But like most visitors to the Children’s Museum since the $2.3 million play structure opened in June 2019, she seems genuinely drawn to it. Kids (including my own) also love it, excitedly forming lines to enter the labyrinthine course that sits 90 feet above the banks of the South Platte River, just southwest of Elitch Gardens.

As long as you’re at least 5 years old and 44 inches tall, you can do whatever you want in it: scramble, jump, slide or simply sit and contemplate the random, piped-in noises and Western aesthetic, expressed in bleached animal skulls, reclaimed-antique sculptures and the dusty color palette — all courtesy of artist Wes Sam-Bruce.

“Play is one of the ways children learn, and it’s particularly important since they’ve been isolated or in front of screens for well over a year,” said Mike Yankovich, president and CEO of the Children’s Museum. “Children need to be outside, because kids who play outdoors are happier and healthier.”

Research has long backed up the physical and psychological benefits of play. And here in Colorado — a state known for its outdoor activities and natural beauty — there’s no shortage of ways to return to the outdoors. Athletics and sports, which roughly 40 million American children take part in, provide a structured version. But exploratory, discovery-based play is important, too.

Kids with less-structured activities are better at setting and completing goals, University of Colorado researchers found.

“All the benefits of UV light and fresh air are part of it,” said Yankovich, who was able to open the Children Museum’s Joy Park without restrictions during the pandemic.

Participating in sports and physical activity allows youth to improve their cardiovascular health, strength, body composition and overall fitness, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Mentally, youth may experience benefits from the increased socialization with friends and coaches as well as from the return to a more structured routine. … Exercise also has immune system benefits.”

Before jumping head-first into outdoor activities, however, there are a few things to keep in mind. Go slow when you return to play, AAP wrote, and acclimate to temperatures and altitudes to avoid heat sickness or dizziness. Hydrate frequently — always a good idea in Colorado — and go easy on your kids (and yourself). Anxiety and depression spiked during the pandemic, even among youngsters, and no one should be forced into anything unnecessarily stressful.

If you’re ready, however, there are plenty of new and improved places to visit. Playful environments can take many forms, from urban “soundwalks” and public-art installations (see denverpublicart.org for examples) to skate parks and bike paths, so don’t feel beholden to any one idea of “play.”

Here’s a curated sampling of metro-area outdoor areas that encourage play, put a premium on creative expression and otherwise let families sprawl and have fun. This list generally excludes public playgrounds and commercial ventures — as wonderful as many of them are — although a couple were bound to show up.

The 3-acre Mordecai Children’s Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens has finally reopened at 1007 York St., allowing casual strolls through its kid-level, native plant environments and zoo-like cave structure, with hands-on options for the little ones (botanicgardens.org). A few blocks north, City Park (2001 Colorado Blvd., denver.org/listing/city-park/6822) offers paddleboarding, paddle-boat rentals and playgrounds amid its wide, grassy fields. The nearby Denver Zoo boasts a few new features — including Stringray Cove, new zoo babies, a new sloth exhibit and a new visitor’s center for its animal hospital. (2300 Steele St., denverzoo.org).

There’s no other metro-area playground like the 30-acre Paco Sánchez Park, which rises from an artificial hill at 1290 Knox Court in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Its geometric main structure, built in 2018, is inspired by a 1950s microphone that doubles as a space-age survival pod (playlsi.com). Littleton’s new and improved Robert F. Clement Park also features a music-themed playground where kids can bang out notes on xylophones (big and small), drums, bells and the tall organ pipes, according to Slides and Sunshine (7306 W. Bowles Ave., ifoothills.org/clement-park).

Nontraditional, nature-based playgrounds, such as the log-centric one that just opened at St. Charles Recreation Center (3777 N. Lafayette St.), challenge kids’ balance and coordination. Animal playgrounds also offer sculptures of various creatures for kids to interact with; see our Staff Favorites series on theknow.denverpost.com for names and addresses.

Mile High on the Cheap also offers a handy guide of Denver’s best non-traditional playgrounds, from Arvada Volunteer Firefighters Park and the eye-popping playground at Denver Premium Outlets to the castle-like Westminster Central Park (various address, milehighonthecheap.com/best-playgrounds-denver)

Most museums offer indoor play and education, but little fresh air. Littleton Museum is a working farm that encourages activities (blacksmithing!) and lets kids hang out with animals on its two, 19th-century living-history farm sites (6028 S. Gallup St., littletongov.org).

Boulder’s Junkyard Social Club is busy working on its Rebel Museum and Adventure Playground, which began hosting small groups last month. The gorgeously eclectic space is designed for kids and adults, where “provocateurs of play” guide visitors ” in “moments of creativity and discovery” (2525 Frontier Ave., Unit A, in Boulder, junkyardsocialclub.org). For Denver adults, the Enigma Bazaar Bar and venue hopes to bring “art, music, theatre, magic and mysticism” to the city when it opens later this year (enigmabazaar.com).

Massive, woven “nests” at Anythink Library locations in Adams County encourage climbing and sliding, with installations at Anythink Wright Farms and Anythink Perl Mack — and more coming to the other branches throughout the summer (anythinklibraries.org).

If you’re into weird, roadside attractions, visit Bishop Castle (bishopcastle.org) and let your kids soak in the architectural eclecticism of Colorado’s (much smaller) answer to Barcelona’s famed Sagrada Familia (12705 State Highway 165 in Rye). Visit colorado.com for more road-trip ideas.

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