The Play(ground)’s The Thing

The weather is finally starting to get warmer! While I don’t necessarily mind being out and about in more frigid temperatures, Daughter #2 has made it very clear that she is not a fan of winter. For that reason, watching the thermometer climb has gotten me super excited about returning to some of our favorite outdoor locations. While we definitely have some hikes and day trips on the agenda, we are starting small by revisiting some of our favorite playgrounds.

Playgrounds abound in Northern Virginia. From neighborhood tot lots to jungle gyms in large regional parks, local children rarely need to travel more than a few blocks to find an outdoor play space. Some are incredibly popular, and rightfully so (for example, it is no surprise that Clemyjontri Park is locally famous given its incredible mission and setup), while others are a little less busy. For this post, I decided to narrow down my list of favorites using two criteria: 1. Unique or expansive play structures, and 2. Proximity to other family friendly destinations. Please continue reading to see my suggestions!

Haley M. Smith Park – 324 Van Buren Street, Herndon, VA 20170

We just recently discovered this Herndon town park when we were out for a drive on New Year’s Eve. Located about 10 minutes from our home, we spotted the colorful, modern play structure from the road and immediately pulled in to the parking lot. This park probably has the newest playground on the list, and it boasts some very neat equipment. There are unique climbing structures, a fun spinning platform, and decorative features that cast rainbows on the ground while offering a bit of shade from the sun. The park is also home to two baseball diamonds, a soccer field, a beach volleyball court, picnic tables, and seasonally open bathrooms.

If you are looking to add more adventure to your park visit, Frying Pan Farm – complete with its adorable farm animals, carousel, playground, and wagon rides – is just 2.4 miles away. Just 1.3 miles away from Haley M. Smith Park are the few blocks that make up Historic Downtown Herndon. Here you will find the W&OD trail, a Dairy Queen, and an old train caboose that kids love to climb on. Behind this area is the Herndon Town Green, which hosts a great outdoor summer concert series on Friday nights. If your kiddos love trucks, Haley M. Smith is within about two miles of where two Touch a Truck events are traditionally held. Herndon typically holds theirs the first week of May, while Reston often has theirs the first week of August. Both of these events were cancelled for 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they return in 2022. Keep an eye on this link for updates about these fun opportunities, and if they happen, don’t forget to stop by Haley M. Smith Park before or after!

Van Dyck Park – 3720 Old Lee Hwy, Fairfax, VA 22030

Van Dyck Park has been a fun destination for my family since my older daughter was just a few years old. My husband and I loved taking her here because the park is surrounded by a running/fitness trail, so we used to take turns entertaining her while the other person worked out. The park is also home to an expansive field, tennis courts, beach volleyball courts, and a skate park, but the playground has always been the main attraction for us. This park often gives the illusion of being less crowded than it actually is because it is divided into a series of what we call “islands”. The equipment was installed in small clusters, and each cluster of equipment is spaced a significant distance away from the next cluster. This drastically reduces the number of children on each structure – and often when we go there are few to no other children on the structure where my daughter chooses to play at any given time.

The park even has more than one picnic area if you choose to have lunch there.  Didn’t pack a lunch? No problem – Old Town Fairfax and its many restaurants are just a mile away (we like visiting Woody’s Ice Cream in the summer).  The park is also less than 10 minutes away from George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena, making it a great place to get some wiggles out after catching a family-friendly performance. All in all, Van Dyck Park has a little something for everyone, with or without a global pandemic.

Great Falls Grange Park – 9818 Georgetown Pike, Great Falls, Virginia 22066

Great Falls Grange Park has been one of our go-to playgrounds for years. Surrounded by tall mature trees, it’s one of the few parks in our area that is abundant in natural shade, making it a favorite summer destination. The equipment itself is composed of swing sets and two jungle gym structures – a smaller one for younger kids, and a much larger one for bigger kiddos. The larger structure boasts multiple slides, a climbing wall, monkey bars, and a series of four tunnels that crisscross each other. There are also two fireman poles: a standard- sized one and a smaller one that’s only about three feet off the ground (pictured below), which is perfect for mini-daredevils.

The larger of the two play structures

The picnic shelter seen above is right next to the playground, making it a popular place to hold birthday parties. It is also a nice spot to enjoy a pizza pie from Village Grill, a restaurant just across the street (in addition to pizza,  they make the best falafels I’ve ever had!). For dessert, you can head to Great Falls Creamery, which is just a few blocks away. If you want to turn your visit into a longer adventure, the adorable Great Falls Library is right next door to this playground, and both Riverbend Park and Great Falls Park are just a few minutes down the road (you can read more about Great Falls and how to hike there from Riverbend in an older blog post here). 

Algonkian Regional Park –  47001 Fairway Dr, Sterling, VA 20165

Those who read have read past blog posts know that I am a fan of parks and hiking opportunities along the Potomac River, and for that reason, Algonkian Regional Park does not disappoint. In addition to scenic trails, a golf course, cabin rentals, and Volcano Island Water Park, this riverfront park is home to one of our favorite playgrounds. Designed with a woodland theme, the playground features low-to-the-ground balance structures that look like stones and logs, complete with a hollowed out canoe and a slackline. The large climbing structure features a scramble tunnel obscured by a bear sculpture. The swing set has traditional swings, as well as a unique baby-big kid swing combo. I’m looking forward to trying this out when Daughter #2 can sit up!

If you feel like adding on to your visit to Algonkian’s playground in the summer months, check out the aforementioned Volcano Island Water Park, which is a short stroll away. This small but reasonably-priced attraction has an activity pool with a climbing structure that will wow little kids, as well as a set of fun slides for the 48-inches-and-up crowd. Plus, it is adjacent to sweet little mini-golf course. Visiting the park in cooler temps? No problem! Take a 13-minute drive over to the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, a hidden gem in Loudoun County and one of our family’s favorite indoor destinations. I promise to blog about it one of these days!

Pohick Bay Regional Park 6501 Pohick Bay Dr, Lorton, VA 22079

As the second regional park on this list, Pohick Bay is also home to a lovely combination of scenic views, hiking opportunities, waterplay fun, and lodging. Nestled along its namesake waterway (which happens to be an offshoot of the Potomac), Pohick Bay is a short drive from other local attractions, including Gunston Hall and Mason Neck State Park. One thing to note: if you do not reside in the NOVA Parks jurisdiction (Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties; Alexandria, Fairfax, and Falls Church Cities), there is an $8 entrance fee in the summer months to enter this park (all visitors will have to pay the appropriate separate entrance fees if they choose to visit Pirate’s Cove Waterpark while at Pohick Bay).

Hanging out on the shore in front of Pohick Bay’s main playground

Pohick Bay’s main playground has the best view of any of the other playgrounds on this list. The playground is home to unique equipment, like a metal climbing tunnel and a series of swinging steps. Parents of runners will be relieved to find that the structure is fully gated, and those who prefer a centralized location will be pleased to see the playground, parking, public restrooms, and the waterfront all in the same general area.

If you feel like doing additional exploring, the park’s campground has a second, smaller playground in the middle of a large clearing. I’ll admit that I was not impressed with it after visiting the main playground first, but my daughter’s eyes lit up when she saw the big spider-web climbing structure. I forgot how much fun those could be! In fact, I used to teach at a school in DC that held recess in the public park across the street, and that park was home to one of these giant spider webs (for lack of a better term). My students invented a game called “rope tag”, whose rules are simple: one person is “it”, and they chase the others through the climbing structure, but nobody’s feet are aloud to touch the ground. They would play this game for the entirety of recess and never get bored. If you have more than one kiddo, consider taking them to Pohick Bay, explaining the rules of Rope Tag, and enjoying some peace and quite on a bench for the next 20 minutes.


This post was meant to offer just a small sampling of fun playground opportunities, but even as I bring it to a close, my brain is swimming with other parks that I could have added to the list. Perhaps I will do a follow-up post in the future, but in the mean time, which Northern Virginia playgrounds are your favorites? Feel free to list them in the comments!

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