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Navigating the last two-plus years of pandemic twists has been taxing on everyone, but parents: We see you. We hear you. (We are you.) From constant quarantines to canceled play dates, we’re guessing you’ve exhausted your reserve of backyard activities—and maybe your sanity. We’re all for family bonding, but with school out and summer in, we’ve rounded up some warm-weather ideas for getting your offspring to mingle with someone their own size. Let the play dates commence.
Englewood Farm & Train at Belleview Park, Englewood
Fact: You can’t go wrong with fuzzy farm animals that your littles can pet, feed, hold, and brush. We’re talking calves, goats, pigs, a llama, roosters, bunnies, and ducks in a barnyard where kids of all ages can give ear scratches to their hearts’ content. When they’ve had their fill of the farm, hop aboard the park’s open-air train for a ride that loops the whole family over bridges and through a tunnel around the park. Hop off at the depot and set up a picnic near the sandy-bottom creek, where you can turn your charges loose to dig and splash alongside other kids cooling off in the shallow stream. At $2.50 a head for the farm and another $2.50 for the train (two and under are free), this just might be one of the sweetest $5 play dates money can buy. Bonus: If you’ve got an especially antsy crew and blazing temps, make a full day of it and hit the adjacent Pirates Cove Waterpark as well.
City Park and Paco Sanchez Park, Denver
Got a climber, swinger, jumper, or spinner on your hands? Good news: The city has been investing in some serious playground upgrades, thanks to the $937 million Elevate Denver Bond passed in 2017 to fund infrastructure projects. For younger explorers in need of play dates, we love the new City Park Playground, which opened on the park’s west side near Duck Lake this past fall. It pays homage to its aging predecessor with a reimagined castle theme, complete with purple-topped towers, a spiral turret, and a climbable dragon structure—but sans splinters this time. The woodless design is easy on little hands and knees and full of rope ladders and twisty slides, plus a mini climbing wall, a modern (read: safer) merry-go-round, a rolling scooter track, obstacle-course elements, and a wheelchair-accessible swing.
Completed in fall 2020, the 30-acre Paco Sanchez Park near Lakewood/Dry Gulch Park off West Colfax Avenue is a mecca for adventurous kids with more advanced motor skills. A seemingly endless array of colorful music-themed play structures—rope bridges in the shape of sound waves! musical chimes that play as your children run over the bridge!—are anchored by a funhouselike climb-and-slide tower in the shape of a giant 1950s-era microphone. (Designed by Denver-based Dig Studio, the park is named for the founder of Denver’s first Spanish-language radio station.) You’ll have to pry your kids—and all their new BFFs—away from the zipline swing.
Colorado Railroad Museum, Golden
Kids who like things that go will find a bona fide happy place in this 15-acre outdoor train museum ($10 per adult, $5 per child; under two play for free) showcasing locomotives, cabooses, and model trains galore. Let them roam the railyard and explore historic passenger cars and rail equipment, or plan your visit on a special day (check the online calendar) when your tiny train aficionado can join group play date activities such as a storybook tour or arts and crafts. Train rides around the campus in various vintage engines run Thursday through Sunday, every half hour, for a small extra fee ($4 per adult, $2 per child over two). The legendary Galloping Goose, a 1930s “motor railcar” modeled after an automobile, is back to carrying passengers this summer after a social-distancing hiatus. Beat the weekend crowds by going on a Thursday: Pop-up exhibits, historical characters, demonstrations, scavenger hunts, and special guests from partner cultural organizations are organized around a different theme each week.
Acreage at Stem Ciders, Lafayette
It might seem unconventional, but hear us out: What do you get when you cross an award-winning craft cidery, a fresh farmhouse menu, plenty of surrounding green space, panoramic Front Range sunset views, and…a playground? The perfect place to while away an afternoon while your brood runs around or plays cornhole with the throngs of other kids whose parents had the same idea, that’s what. Mosey up to the Acreage ciderhouse and eatery in Lafayette on a sunny weekend and nab a picnic table on the deck to order food. Just drinking? Pull up an Adirondack on the grass and grab yourself a refreshing dry cider (recent fave: the salted cucumber variety) from the main building’s exterior window counter while you keep an eye on the youngins’ antics.
Levitt Pavilion Denver in Ruby Hill Park, Denver
If you’ve got a couple of not-quite-teenagers—old enough for a little independence, but not quite ready to be dropped off by themselves—check out this year’s free concert series at south Denver’s Levitt Pavilion. Round up a few of their friends on a balmy evening and head to the amphitheater, where your big kids can claim their own space on the seat-yourself grassy hillside surrounding the stage. Then set up your chairs, blankets, and picnic supplies (on a recent visit, food truck options were limited) at a reasonable distance. They get to chill with their friends; you get to be in the venue but not on top of them; and everyone gets to groove to some tunes. Win-win-win.
(Read More: How to Raise a More Resilient Kid)