Donovan Park

Image: Todd Spoth

Hermann Park and Discovery Green are just two spots in this city that pull off the green space hat trick: sophisticated urban settings, fun activity programs, and capacious splash pads. But let’s face it, sometimes you want something a little more low-key. Over the past three years, Jill Jarvis, founder of Bigkidssmallcity.com and a mother of three, has made it her business to explore the city’s best smaller parks inside the loop, visiting and critiquing dozens of area playgrounds. What were her picks, we wondered? 

As she is always on the lookout for the surprising—“unusual” is her go-to compliment—Jarvis finds Wilson Wonderground to be extraordinarily extraordinary. “It has a play structure, but you hardly even notice it because there is so much else to do,” she says, citing the sand mounds, music stations, rock fort, and old logs available for climbing. Officially a SPARK Park—an HISD playground that does double-duty as a city park—it’s open to the public whenever school is not in session. How wonderful is Wonderground? As Jarvis’s son once put it, “Wow, kids get to go to school here?”

Sadly, after 40-plus years, the decommissioned real vehicle that formed the centerpiece of Southside Place’s Fire Truck Park recently went to that ole firehouse in the sky, but it’s been replaced by a fire truck–themed play structure that Jarvis says your little ones will adore. (“Bigger kids love all the climbing walls, and there are these little seats you can spin in that are very unusual.”) She also touts Fire Truck Park’s unique Astroturf-type surface, which keeps tykes mud- and bug-free. 

Children of all ages, meanwhile, love the park near the amazing pool in Bellaire Town Square (which boasts a rock waterfall, slides, two diving boards including a high dive, water games, and more). “They have challenging playground equipment that keeps older kids interested for longer,” according to Jarvis. Little gymnasts will love the rings course, spider webs of climbable ropes, and balance boards. Other favorites are the tight-rope bridge at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center’s playground and the super-deluxe play structure at Evergreen Park, just next door to the lush four-acre loveliness of Russ Pitman Park and the Bellaire Nature Center.

Donovan Park scores big with Jarvis for its massive wooden play-castle, complete with towers interconnected by rope bridges and scalable chain ladders. With tons of semi-subterranean nooks and crannies, Donovan is among Houston’s top spots for hide-and-seek, and it recently added a wooden train to boot. 

Those intent on enjoying nature’s own play structure—easily climbable trees—can do no better than Menil Park, where a single red swing is the only man-made offering and the Seussian live oaks offer kids the chance to play as their earliest ancestors did.

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