Credit: Natasha Dillinger
Getting outside during the rainy season offers so many benefits, but on days when my kids won’t cooperate (just put on your shoes already!), we skip epic hikes and opt for an easy win at a new or favorite playground. When I heard that Mill Creek's Heron Park recently unveiled a brand-new nature-themed play area, we went to check it out. I wanted to see if a double dose of nature would perhaps lift the kids' spirits. Here's what we found:
Head straight to inviting play structures
I knew my mood-improving scheme had worked when my young son tried to make a beeline straight from the parking lot to the merry-go-round when I was still zipping up his rain suit. At least I didn’t have to worry too much about traffic. The park is located in a residential neighborhood and there are just three spots (including one ADA space) in the lot.
Often my son sticks to the smaller play structures we encounter, those geared toward the 2–5 age group, but here the big climbers shaped like tree stumps and wide green leaves drew him in. The tallest slide has two ramps with footholds leading up to it and I nervously watched from the ground as he puzzled his way up. Only one of us was nervous (hint: it was me) as he triumphantly glided down the corkscrew slide and announced “Me do it again!”
My musically inclined daughter made her way over to the toddler play structure to experiment with the note-shaped hammers that make a surprisingly loud chime sound when you hit them. She pretended to teach preschool to her younger brother by tracing the engraved letters and numbers over the slide (braille versions of the numbers are also posted), but he was more interested in manipulating the spinner at the bottom of the stairs.
The unique merry-go-round fosters cooperative play with a group-controlled steering wheel in the middle of four seats. My kids were too small to turn it themselves, but they loved having me spin them around till they were dizzy.
Geared towards an older, well-coordinated crowd
I've typically found that local play structures labeled as “designed for ages 5–12” can easily and safely engage younger kids as well. The larger play structure here, however, does seem best suited to older kids, with challenging handholds on the climbers and more steeply inclined bridges. Keep a close eye on your crew if you have kids who like to test their limits. (Pro tip for caregivers of older, independent kids: Enjoy a game of tennis on the adjacent court while still keeping your crew within sight.)
Parents and caregivers of younger kids, like mine, will want to supervise them more closely than usual, especially on days when the equipment is slippery with rain or dew. My toddler son was disappointed that the swing set didn’t have any of the traditional bucket swings for babies and was missing safety restraints on the inclusive component of the tandem swing. Children with disabilities may find the wood chip play surface and the raised entry barriers difficult to navigate.
Sheltered picnicking and a tranquil paved walk
Alongside the playground overhaul, Heron Park's sheltered picnic area also had its roof and floor redone as part of the $410,000 renovation completed in late 2020. While there were no open restrooms, there was plenty of room to spread out for families who need a snack break mid-play.
The secluded location tucked away in a neighborhood seems to keep out crowds and noise. The only other people we saw on our visit were neighbors briskly walking by on a morning stroll — a short paved trail leads around the one-acre pond area adjacent to the playground.
After our visit on a chilly weekday morning, we stopped by Bequest Coffee in nearby Mill Creek Towne Center to warm up with a hot beverage. My kids gave rave reviews to the hot chocolate with housemade whipped cream. After a rough start to our day, a successful playground outing and mouths full of hot chocolate led to the true win for me: five minutes of peace and quiet on the drive home!
If you go…
Open hours: Mill Creek city parks are open daily, from dawn to dusk.
Safety: We've said this a lot, but it's worth repeating until we emerge from the other side of this pandemic mess: Wear your masks, wash your hands, keep your distance from those outside your family and move on if you stop by this park and find a crowd. We always suggest an early-morning or just-before-dark visit to playgrounds to ensure your crew has the place mostly to yourselves.
Facilities: There are no open restrooms at the moment, but there is a large picnic shelter with tables where families can take cover in poor weather. There's also a tennis court by the playground. A small paved walking trail also winds around one acre of wetland space.
Parking: A tiny parking lot provides space for three cars (including one ADA spot), but ample street parking is located nearby.
Takeaway lunch or dinner: Mill Creek is home to the only remaining outlet of iconic Toshi's Teriyaki.
More playgrounds to test drive!