Residents of Seattle’s south end have been longtime fans of Seward Park. Its 277 acres of old-growth forest on the Bailey Peninsula, jutting into Lake Washington, draw a variety of people, from families with babes in strollers to senior citizens. But the biggest fans these days are the children who romp on the newly renovated playground.
When my daughter, now 16, was little, the park was one of our favorite places, but the children’s area had definitely seen better days. The somewhat small playground, built in the 1970s, had a rusty slide, basic swings, a deteriorating wooden play structure in the shape of a ship, some spring toys of questionable safety and a gravelly sand area. By the time my daughter turned 12, the state of the playground could only be described as sorry.
In 2007, Betina Simmons and Maura Whalen brought together community members from Mount Baker to Rainier Beach to form the Seward Park Playground Improvement Foundation (SPPIF). (Simmons and Whalen are cochairs of the foundation.) The goal was to create a space that would give children of all ages an exciting place to explore nature in a fun, physical way.
Starting the transformation
Just prior to the start of the playground renovation, Seward Park received a facelift when the National Audubon Society took over the vacant building next to the playground. The dilapidated Tudor-style structure (built in the 1940s) was transformed into the Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center, which partnered with SPPIF to renovate the playground. Joined by Friends of Seward Park and Friends of Seattle’s Olmstead Park, SPPIF was able to raise more than $300,000 to augment a levy-funded playground improvement project for a total of $450,000.
SPPIF and its partners reached out to the diverse local community to gather input during the planning and design process. Seattle architectural firm Johnson Southerland took that extensive public input and designed a masterpiece that is arguably one of the crown jewels of Seattle’s public spaces. Area families pitched in with hundreds of volunteer hours, donations and fund-raising efforts, waiting patiently for the three-year process to reach its conclusion.
On October 18, 2010, their hard work was rewarded. The expanded space included something for toddlers to teens, with specific areas for active play, forest play, tot play, a sand pond complete with a nifty digging machine, and a setting for an outdoor classroom.
The play areas incorporated the bones of the old swing set, but added a number of new play structures suitable for various age groups: rocks and ropes for climbing, slides, a merry-go-round, spring toys and an extremely popular zip line. Gorgeous landscaping with native plants, a pristine view of Mount Rainier and interactive art complete the project.
Neighborhood families give it rave reviews.
Martin Saxer and Kathryn Crawford had frequented the old playground with their children Gavin and Zoe (now 7 and 5) and love the improvements. “The zip line is definitely the favorite toy,” notes Saxer, “though the climbing structure with the ropes is a close second.”
From their Brighton Beach home, Nicole Henry takes her 1-year-old, Madeline, who only recently started walking, down to the park to play on the tot’s slide and in the sand pit. “The rubber-based ground cover is a little tricky for her, but she’s getting better at walking on it every time.”
My own daughter and her teenage friends channel their “inner child” and cavort on the zip line, swings and more challenging climbing structures.
Melissa Odegaard, who frequents the park with her preschoolers Malia and Jack, loves the way the designers worked hard to blend the playground architecture into the natural setting and notes, “My kids call it ‘the zip line park.’”
The new playground is definitely a great addition to the park, but the whole package makes it a terrific family destination. The grounds include a swimming beach (complete with lifeguard and bathhouse in the summer), huge grassy play/picnic areas, a native plant garden, a 2.8-mile paved loop around the peninsula with views of downtown and Mount Rainier, recently restored forest trails, a large open meadow, picnic pavilions available for rent, an outdoor amphitheater that hosts summer jazz concerts and Shakespeare in the Park, two public bathrooms, tennis courts, boat ramps, fishing docks, free parking and the Seward Park Clay Studio, which offers after-school and summer classes for kids.
Feathered friends and critters
The abundance of birds and other wildlife make the park the perfect location for the Audubon Center. Park visitors can see a variety of waterfowl, including great blue herons that fish near the beach. The forest and grasslands attract everything from kingfishers to chickadees, and there are two known pairs of nesting bald eagles who delight viewers by soaring overhead on a regular basis. The lucky loop walker might see turtles basking on a log in the sun, or even a beaver.
Cambria Cox, whose husband wrote a grant for the project, extols the virtues of the playground’s proximity to the Audubon Center for her two children Hayden, 7, and Vivian, 4. “As if the park could be any cooler, the staff and events at the center are outstanding. We go at least once or twice a month.”
The center offers school and community programs to introduce people of all ages “to inspire exploration, discovery and stewardship of the park.” A favorite for young families is Toddler Tales and Trails on alternating Wednesdays and Saturdays. The program begins with a nature-themed story time in the center’s lending library, followed by a short, easy hike, led by one of the center’s naturalists, that expands on the theme.
Semimonthly Super Saturdays include displays, games, arts and crafts, and other activities based on a common nature theme, such as decomposition or urban gardening. Evenings are made special by monthly Full-Moon Community Dinners, Bat Walks and Talks, Owl Prowl Parties and Walks, and Winter Wonderland Hayrides.
The center also has a small Audubon store with birding supplies, books, games and toys, and it also rents out its large room for birthday parties. A recent Saturday saw the building decorated with bright balloons and a dozen children in party clothes enjoying the playground. Detailed information is available on the center website at sewardpark.audubon.org.
This combination of park offerings, the Audubon Center and the new playground make Seward Park one of the most family-friendly park destinations in the city. SPPIF cochair Simmons talks about a dream realized. “I see it as a living room for the community — one of the few places where the many diverse groups all come together in one place to engage in the common language of play.”
Looking for more in playground fun? Be sure to check out these 12 other Seattle-area playgrounds that have recently been renovated and remodeled.
Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer/graphic designer who lives in Seattle’s south end, and almost wishes she had a toddler again to play with at Seward Park.