We took I-94 through Minnesota in the summer, and reached the St. Paul area on a hot, sunny day in desperate need of a place to eat lunch and to give my two year olds a chance to move. Fortunately, we stumbled on Good Times Park, an unsupervised indoor playground in Eagan, MN (just south of St. Paul).
One of the struggles in finding shady places for unstructured play was that my sons have gross and fine muscle delays combined with a sensory processing disorder. That meant many playgrounds had equipment that they couldn’t use, and others had a surface texture was frustrating for them to touch.
Good Times Park met all of our unique needs. It was cool on a roasting sunny day. It was a boundless playground with a rubber floor that was tolerable for the boys to touch, and had equipment that allowed my children to play seamlessly alongside children who were not delayed while challenging both groups. I was pleased to see that the set up was such that children in wheelchairs or using assistive devices would have been able to play side by side with their peers.
The park was unlike anywhere I have ever taken my children. Users start by going online and paying an entrance fee, and electronically signing a waiver–this produces an entry code to enter the park. Sometimes the owner is on site, but not always (and wasn’t when we were there, though she wrote us a friendly note). The park is monitored by camera, and there are no employees hovering to make sure people play fair, wait in line, or participate in organized activities. and there is a wonderful freedom about that.
The park is divided into several areas based on the type of play: there are movement and climbing structures, a giant jumping pillow, an electronic floor game the size of my living room (for stomping of course), a basketball court and soccer field (stocked with hoola hoops, cones, woobly wood for stepping on, and all kinds of balls) a building area with giant foam blocks (some several feet long), a byo cafeteria, and a play space for crawlers. Careful spacing and a minimum of visual clutter makes all of these coexist without seeming overwhelming or chaotic even to my children, who often struggle with play areas that are too busy, loud or crowded with things and people.
There are rules, of course: you can’t let in anyone who hasn’t registered/paid, all kids have to have an adult with them, everyone has to wear shoes (except on the jumper), and each area has safety instructions users have to follow. There are other rules, but they all boil down to having some common sense. Beyond those minimal instructions, the only goal seemed to be to encourage active, unstructured play.
First, there’s the general awesomeness of the existence of a completely unsupervised privately owned park in a world where we seem increasingly determined to over-supervise and over-structure childhood.
Kids moved freely between areas, and shared and traded equipment easily. Parents tended to either hang back and let their child play without interfering, or play actively without telling their child what to do (because seriously, there was a giant jumping pillow. . .how can anyone resist a bounce or two?).
The park has cameras and a key code entry, but beyond that parents and kids are left to themselves to follow the rules, get along, clean up after themselves and generally behave. As a social experiment, our visit would make me think it was a success. Everyone cleaned up after themselves, the kids and adults go along, and there was plenty of space to spread out and play.
The equipment and spaces are well-thought out. One of the challenges about our move was that the boys would have to go at least a month and a half without an Occupational or Physical Therapy session, and assumed we wouldn’t be able to access the same equipment they had at their sessions on the road. Good Times Park had equipment that was clearly purchased for developmental skills and free-form active play in mind. From a jumping pillow the size of a studio apartment, to structures for climbing, spinning, crawling, sliding, and moving, the park was the perfect place for the boys to continue working on the skills they’d begun with their therapists back home. It also provided the stimulus they needed without being overwhelming.
The park is an inclusive place focused entirely on letting children explore and play without structured guidance. The spaces are huge, and provided options for children of many ages and interests to invent, build, run, and move. There is ample space for eating, and storing coats and bags. The park hours extend early and late enough that parents who work most shifts can bring their kids. It’s open from 7am to 9:30pm (seriously, that late).
Downsides (or not)
There aren’t really any downsides, and the potential problems seem to be headed off with well planned design.
For example, you can only purchase a ticket online, which could be a problem for those who don’t have internet access. However, The owner thought of that and a computer station sits at the entrance where anyone can purchase a ticket and admission code.
The $8 admission cost for the first child could be a problem, but $8 pays for a full day pass, and there are reduced costs for bringing more than one child. Monthly and annual passes reduce it significantly–for example, a one month pass is $15 (less than the cost of visiting twice).
We drove to the park, which is in a large commercial park, and I wondered if it would be tough to get there via public transportation. But, the closest bus stop is right outside the parking lot, which isn’t bad at all.
This is a great place to visit if you’re driving through Minnesota on I-94, or if you’re from the area and looking for an unstructured place to play for children of all abilities.