Wednesday, July 26, 2017

My Top Book and Toy Picks for Farm-Loving Kids

If your little one can't get enough of farms and farm animals, here are some great toys and books to accompany a visit to one of our local farm favorites. For a list of farm-related activities in the South Bay and its environs, check out my recent post here.

(Toy recommendations are below -- books are coming soon!)

Favorite Farm Toys

Toddler X went through a huge farm phase from ages 1-3 (it started with farm animals and -- with some nudging from Mr. X -- grew into a tractor fixation too), so, not surprisingly, many of the gifts he received during that era were farm-related. Amusingly, my niece entered the same phase right as Toddler X was exiting, so in addition to sharing our favorites, we got to give some of the more recent additions to the farm toy scene. Here are some toys that we love:

(Note: I've included my personal thoughts on age-appropriateness for each toy, based on our family's experience. However, the manufacturer's age recommendation may differ from my experience, and you should consider the manufacturer's suggestions/warnings in determining if a toy is right for your child. I assume no responsibility for readers' decisions concerning age-appropriateness.)

Kidoozie Funtime Tractor. This was one of Toddler X's absolute favorites during his toddler years, is now Baby X's top toy, and has been a hit with every kid who has visited and tried it. I can't recommend it highly enough. 

As many of you know, I'm not a plastic toy person (and definitely not a noise-making toy person), but Grandma X got this for us as a gift, and I must admit, it's fantastic. Old MacDonald sits in the driver's seat of the tractor, with five farm animals each having their own spot in the tractor bed. Pushing down on Old MacDonald gets you a song; pushing down on the steering wheel brings up the tractor lights; pushing down on each animal gets you their respective sounds; and pushing down on the smokestack gets the tractor rolling across the floor with revving noises (it's got a pretty strong motor too!). Old MacDonald and the animals are all removable; they are currently some of Baby X's favorite chew toys, and interact well with other playsets too.

The toy is super durable and well-made (flimsiness often being one of my complaints with plastic toys), and the songs/noises aren't the least bit annoying (obviously a big complaint with noise-makers). Mr. X and I find it hilarious.

In terms of appropriate ages, Toddler X received this as a gift for Christmas 2012 when he was about 10 months old, and played with it for more than a year, maybe until 2.5 years. It was one of the toys we held onto in case of another baby, and we were excited to bring it out for Baby X in February 2017, when she was 6 months old. It was a hit right away, and continues to be at 1 year. I'd personally buy it as a gift for children from 10 months up to maybe 2 years old, but be sure to consider the manufacturer's recommendation -- I believe it's 12 months to 3 years.


Lego/Duplo My First Farm and My First Tractor Playsets

When grandparents know a kid is "into" something, they get "into" it too, so it's no surprise that Toddler X got these two sets, one from each set of grandparents, for his first birthday. Duplo toys are wonderful in so many ways, and these two little sets are great options for early learning and development. The farm has doors and windows that open (boy, did Toddler X love that!) and the tractor, of course, rolls. The little people/animals are just the right size for little hands, and the classic Duplo block connections are great for fine motor development. These will be coming out soon for Baby X -- probably as "recycled" first birthday gifts next month!

I'd personally choose these for ages 1 and up -- at first, they're great on their own or just with the two sets, but later on, the pieces can be incorporated into bigger Duplo sets for play throughout the toddler years (basically until the child is ready to move on to Legos). (Manufacturer's recommendation is 1 1/2 - 5 years.)

Melissa and Doug Wooden Farm Train Set

This was another first birthday gift for Toddler X (thanks, Savanah!!) and another favorite. We've been very happy with probably 95% of our Melissa and Doug toys (and we have a lot of them), and this is up toward the top of the list for the toddler years. Toddler X loved playing with this train (i.e., taking it apart), and I actually loved putting it back together -- the assignment of specific contents to each car appeals to my perfectionist tendencies. There's an engine and four cars, one to carry produce, one for milk, and one for the cow. The cars come apart and can be arranged in any order. It's lots of fun, very cute, and well-made. This, too, will be coming out of storage for Baby X in the next 6 months or so.

The manufacturer's recommendation for this is 3-5 years, but from my personal experience, I'd say it would get the most play from 1.5 - 3.5 years.


Green Toys Farm Playset and Tractor

Well, you know how much we love Green Toys (the Bay Area company that makes adorable, durable, fun toys from recycled milk cartons), so it should come as no surprise that I'm a big fan of the Green Toys farm-related options. 

I say I am a big fan because Toddler X hasn't actually played with these two. The tractor came out right as Toddler X was nearing the end of his big Green Toys vehicle years (I'd say up to ages 4 or 4.5, though he still enjoys some of them from time to time) and since he already had -- no joke -- THIRTEEN Green Toys trucks, boats, and planes, I decided we could skip this one. However, I've seen it in use in a multitude of places -- play spaces, friends' houses, playgrounds, toy stores, and the Whole Foods in Almaden, back when they had a great kids' area -- and it's classic Green Toys in its cute design, functionality, durability, and environmental-friendliness. If you have a tractor-lover, it's a good bet. Like most (all?) Green Toys vehicles, the recommended age is 1 and up -- though Toddler X got his first two (bus and fire truck) when he was about 10 months, and Baby X has been loving the bus since about that age as well, so you could probably go younger.

The farm playset is an even more recent addition to the Green Toys line -- I think they just started making it in 2016. Of course, when I saw it, I had to figure out someone to buy it for (Toddler X was past this age), and fortunately we had two 2-3 year old nieces at the time -- score! It made a great Christmas gift, and now that I've seen it in person several times, I feel pretty certain we'll be getting it for Baby X when she's at the appropriate age. Because this is more of a playset than a big vehicle, the age recommendation from the manufacturer skews older -- it's 2 - 6 years. We'll probably get this for Baby X's Christmas gift (about 16 months), and I'd buy it as a gift for a 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 year old.

(Book recommendations are coming soon!!)

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Everywhere a "Moo, Moo": Best Places to Meet Farm Animals in the South Bay (and beyond)

In terms of fun family outings, it's hard to beat a trip to a farm or petting zoo. Usually inexpensive (or even free!), these mini-adventures let our kids interact with animals rarely seen (but often talked/sung about) in their day-to-day suburban lives. Fortunately, the South Bay and its environs offer many options for farm animal fun, and we have visited almost all of them. Below are some recommendations and tips for your next family adventure.

(And if you're looking for a gift for a little farm-lover, check out my post on our favorite farm-related toys and books for young kids!)

Hidden Villa Farm
Hidden Villa, Los Altos. One of our family's favorite local adventures (of any type, not just farms) is Hidden Villa Farm. Nestled in a bucolic setting in the Los Altos hills, Hidden Villa features a slew of farm animals -- sheep, goats, cows, chickens, and pigs -- in a wide-spread, natural farm environment. While you generally can't enter the animal pens (with the exception of the chickens -- they run free in a large enclosure that visitors can enter), the animals as a whole are very accessible. You can pet the sheep through the bars of their pen (see photo above), and get within a foot of huge hogs. (Note that Hidden Villa does offer special programs and weekend farm tours during which guests interact with the animals -- see the calendar on their website for details.)

The farm also has a really cool education garden (see section on horticulture, coming soon), really great spots for creek splashing (see my post on splashing favorites), hiking trails (beware -- some of them are distinctly not stroller-friendly), and just a really nice vibe. There are picnic tables and portable restrooms spread out throughout the farm (there is one real restroom too). You can spend hours here, visiting animals, splashing, eating, relaxing...and yes, playing.

Admission is free, but parking is $10 (an increase from years past) -- bring cash and pay at the box if the attendant isn't there. There is a dirt trail from the parking lot leading up to the animals, so wear good shoes and, if you bring a stroller, bring a sturdy one. The farm is generally open Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays) throughout the year -- however, during the summer it is closed on weekdays and many weekends due to camp activity. The only summer weekends that the farm is open are July 1-2, 15-16, 22-23 and August 5-6.

There are often fun programs, including weekend farm tours, that allow you to get closer to the animals or learn about farm-related topics in a family-friendly setting -- check the calendar for details.

Definitely one of our top picks for a family adventure!
Deer Hollow
Deer Hollow Farm, Los Altos. Another nearby favorite, Deer Hollow is tucked within Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, a short and easy one mile "hike" (more like walk) from the parking areas. Deer Hollow has sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks, and cows. Like Hidden Villa's animals, these are easy to see through the bars of their pens. Again like Hidden Villa, the vibe is very pleasant and relaxed. The farm is very compact, well-suited to little kids. There are picnic tables in the barn next to the farm and two very smelly bathrooms nearby (normal bathrooms are located down by the parking lots).

Parking and admission are free. Bring a stroller or carrier for kids under, maybe, 4 years old -- the walk isn't hard, but parking at farther lots (because the closer ones can be packed) can add to the trek, especially on the way back to the car.

Deer Hollow is closed on Mondays and on Wednesday afternoons; otherwise, it's open from 8:00-4:00. Even when the farm is closed, you can see the goats and sometimes the other animals from the other side of the fence.

Aside from Deer Hollow, Rancho San Antonio offers a wide array of hiking trails of different lengths and levels of difficulty -- it's one of our favorite places to go with kids in the BOB or carrier. The creek that flows through the park also offers a great splashing opportunity on the way up to Deer Hollow Farm -- look on the right-hand side of the trail near the footbridge for a gentle slope down to a perfect "beach". Rancho is also a great place to spot wildlife -- I don't think we've ever been here and not seen deer and wild turkeys.

Keep an eye out for posts about their special events -- there is usually a Halloween party and one or more Spring Farm Tours, when you can actually go in the pens to interact with the animals.

I have a full post where you can read more about a Deer Hollow excursion -- check it out here.

Emma Prusch Farm Park
Emma Prusch Farm Park, San Jose: This is a great option if you're looking for a free, nearby, easily-accessible farm animal encounter and you don't care as much about atmosphere. Emma Prusch is located right up against the 280/101 interchange, but houses a fun little (emphasis on little) farmyard with goats, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, and rabbits. You can buy feed for the goats and chickens, though on busy days the goats get fed so much that at a certain point they stop being interested in what you're offering, which can be pretty disappointing for the kids. Watch out for the geese that fight for the chicken feed -- those things can be nasty!

In addition to the barnyard, there is a large red barn that houses 4H animals being raised by local students. There are usually cows, sheep, and pigs in there. You can't touch or feed them, but you can see them pretty close-up and be amused by their funny names.

The park as a whole offers a huge grassy area with a paved path around it (nice for a walk with strollers), picnic tables, restrooms, a playground (with a main play structure that is distinctly not toddler-friendly), a few tractors to climb on, and, around the back, a separate entity -- Veggielution -- that I'll write about in the horticulture section to come.

Happy Hollow
Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, San Jose. I'm guessing that the vast majority of my readers who have young kids and have lived here for any length of time have visited Happy Hollow. It's a San Jose institution that I remember visiting as a kid, and I can't count the number of times I've taken Toddler X since his first visit at 8 months old. It features a variety of options for toddler through 7 or 8 year old fun -- zoo animals, a petting zoo with farm animals, two playground areas (one with a fantastic, amazing, incredible big kid play structure), fun little kid rides (and a few that might amuse first and second graders as well), a large grassy meadow, and a beloved crooked house with a very fast slide.

Happy Hollow is in this category for the barnyard animals. It is definitely the closest spot where kids can really interact with furry friends. In the large goat enclosure, there are a bunch of (usually) friendly goats who are more than happy to eat the feed you can buy, and usually don't mind being brushed with the provided brushes either. There are also several other animals in the barnyard section, all of which can be fed through the bars of their pens (the goats are the only ones with which you can enter the enclosure). There are big water troughs with soap to wash hands afterwards, and I suggest you make use of them. Also, it's probably best to put your kids in alternate, washable shoes for their foray into the enclosure, as there is plenty of goat poop on the ground, and the last thing you want is that being tracked back into your car.

Happy Hollow admission is pretty reasonably priced ($14.25 for ages 2 and up), with discounts for seniors, AAA, military, and members of reciprocal zoos and aquariums, but many people choose to get a membership, which pays for itself in three visits (less if you take advantage of the discount in the cafe or store). The memberships are $40 per person, but if you buy 4 or more at one time, the price goes down to $35 per person, so get together with a friend and purchase together. The memberships are individual, not family, so you'll need to get them for kids 2 and up.

Parking at Happy Hollow is not cheap, at $10/day. You can buy an annual pass, which we did the year Toddler X was two and found it worthwhile, but unless you're planning at least 8 visits/year (or visits to Alum Rock Park or Almaden Lake Park, where the pass also works), it may be best just to cough up the one time fee at each visit. There is free street parking a short distance away, but we've always chosen to do the lots -- the last thing you want to do at the end of the day is push a crying, over-tired toddler to a distant parking space.

Hanging out with some kids at Ardenwood.
Ardenwood Historic Farm, Fremont. Though it's a bit farther of a trek than Happy Hollow, Ardenwood is definitely worth a trip (or more -- we've been there probably 10 times over the past four years, and enjoyed each and every visit). It is a full, working farm (you can come join the corn harvest in October -- awesome event!) with cows, sheep, goats, pigs, bunnies, and roaming chickens, turkeys, and peacocks. The animals are are pretty accessible (you don't go in the pens with them, but for the most part they're very close to the fences and there are easy viewing options), and the layout is spacious, but walkable. The setting is so pleasant and old-timey, despite the fact that busy I-880 is just a short distance away. I have a full post on Ardenwood here -- for more details, be sure to check it out. Also check out the calendar for upcoming events, including Toddler Tuesdays, which are a great opportunity to get to know the animals better.

Little Farm
Little Farm, Tilden Park, Berkeley. This is one of our favorite...well, little farms of all. Its name is appropriate in some ways -- the footprint is relatively small for the amount of animals it houses -- but it's far from "little" when it comes to variety, interaction, and fun (you actually get to feed the animals real food!!!). Obviously this is a bit farther from the South Bay than the other options, but Tilden Park has a LOT to offer -- a carousel, walking trails, a train, picnic areas, a lake, and more -- so it's a fun, outdoorsy day trip. Rather than doing a longer summary, I'll direct you to my full post about Little Farm -- check it out here.

Rolling Hills 4H Farm at McClellan Ranch
McClellan Ranch Preserve 4H Farm, Cupertino: This is an under-the-radar spot to see a limited number of farm animals -- I certainly wouldn't come here just for that purpose, but if you're here to visit Blackberry Farm (the pool or playground), walk the nice paved trail, see the nature center, or splash in Stevens Creek, it's definitely worth a little detour to see the Rolling Hills 4H animals at the farm. The animals you'll see will vary depending on what kids are raising at that time, but we've seen lots of goats, pigs, chickens, and I think I remember a miniature horse. The highlight for us here was the time we saw a student walking her goat on a leash, and Toddler X got to give it a treat.

Parking and admission are free, and since you're not really entering a special barnyard, just walking around the perimeter (make sure you walk around the back side, near the community garden, where the animals are closer and more visible), the hours are just the park hours. McClellan Ranch and Blackberry Farm (and the path linking them) form an enjoyable outing and one we have done many times.
    Westmont High School FFA Ag Farm. I've never been to this one, but I've heard from friends and readers that there is an FFA farm at Westmont High School . I'm not sure what the limitations are on visits, especially during school hours, but I do know it's there and perhaps worthy of investigation.

    San Francisco Zoo
    The San Francisco Zoo. The San Francisco Zoo has one of my favorite farm animal petting areas ever. I love how wide open it is, the variety of animals available for greeting, and how gentle they are with the kids. We've found the employees who work there to be very friendly and helpful. Just be careful if you leave your stroller outside the gate with some food inside -- at one visit, we found a very aggressive squirrel actually rummaging around in one of our bags! I have a full post on the SF Zoo if you'd like more information -- you can read it here.

    Lots of goats to love at Lemos Farm
    Lemos Farm, Half Moon Bay. A disclaimer: we have only been to Lemos Farm for Halloween, when it is converted into a pumpkin-laden theme park of sorts, but the farm is open on weekends year-round. (I see Groupons for it all the time.) At our visit a few years ago, the goats at Lemos were Toddler X's favorite part of a whole Half Moon Bay day -- they were gentle and sweet and happily ate the treats he offered (he was able to go into the pen and give them hugs, too). There are also pony rides (the type where they walk slowly around in a harnessed circle) and many other activities. If you're looking for a bit more of an expedition or day trip, heading to Half Moon Bay's beaches, with a stop at Lemos along the way, could be fun. And definitely search for that Groupon before you go! I have a full blog post about Lemos' Halloween set-up if you'd like to know more.

    Seasonal Farm Animal Outings

    Bunnies at Giordano Farms

     Pumpkin Patches and Halloween/Fall Festivals (Fall)

    If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you know that we love all things Fall and Halloween (in 2013, I believe we visited 10 or 11 different patches and had 27 pumpkins on our front stoop). One of our favorite aspects of pumpkin farm visits and fall festivals is the ever-present petting zoo. We've found some wonderful petting zoos around the South Bay, the Peninsula, and the coast -- from sweet bunnies at the Woodside Pumpkin Festival and the former Giordano Farms to baby pigs at Arata to llamas at Gilroy Gardens -- and though the residents are ever-changing, you're almost guaranteed to find some gentle animals that your child will enjoy.

    One of our annual favorites is the fall zoo at Gilroy Gardens -- it's as extensive a petting zoo as you could hope for, and entrance is just $5 per child. I have a full review of it here. For other options, keep an eye out come fall -- most pumpkin patches have one these days (at least on weekends), and I'll post updates and reviews whenever I see one. (For some of our top pumpkin patch picks, see this post.)

    Judging the livestock at the San Mateo County Fair
    State and County Fairs (Late spring through summer)

    While I think fairs are a blast -- the people watching itself is worth the cost of admission -- Mr. X isn't the hugest fan, so we don't go often. In fact, the only fair we've been to since Toddler X came along was the San Mateo County Fair a few years ago, and that was lots of fun. I'm going to make it a point to get to the Santa Clara County version this summer.

    Anyhow, if you're looking to see farm animals, there's no place (outside a farm) better than a fair! You can find pretty much any type of livestock, and you can even watch them being shown/judged/bid upon in some cases. I'm not sure if fairs generally have petting zoos, but I know the San Mateo County Fair had pony rides, and Toddler X really enjoyed his.

    As the summer continues, keep an eye out for the dates of the local and state fairs. Some to consider are the Santa Clara County Fair (August 3-6), Alameda County Fair (going on now until July 9th), Santa Cruz County Fair (September 13-17), Monterey County Fair (August 31 - September 4), and the California State Fair (July 14-30). (The Contra Costa County Fair was in May, and the San Mateo County Fair took place in mid-June.)

    Okay, folks, that's all I have for you on this topic! Hope you enjoyed the post!

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    Here, a moo. There, a moo.

    Wednesday, June 28, 2017

    Playground Review: Steve Carli Park (Santa Clara)

    Steve Carli Park has been around for a long time, but its recently-renovated playground is brand spankin' new and a sight to behold, with fun theming, great shade, and features galore. We stopped by to check it out this afternoon and here's what we found:

    Location/Parking. Steve Carli Park is located on Los Padres Boulevard between Homestead and Benton in Santa Clara. It's set in a pleasant family neighborhood, alongside an elementary school. Between the playground and the school is the home field for the Westside Little League. As with any park adjacent to a little league field, it's likely to be hopping on Saturday mornings in the spring, so plan your visits accordingly.

    There is no parking lot, but ample street parking (as long as it's not baseball season). Because only one side of the park (and a narrow side at that) touches the street, however, you may have a bit of a walk from your car to the park itself. Fortunately there are sidewalks and a crosswalk right at the park to keep you and your kiddos safe.

    The Playground. Where to begin?! The newly-remodeled playground (it just opened on June 15th) is fantastic on so many levels, from its setting to its structures to its creative features. Here are some highlights:

    The playground is set at the rear of the park, far from the street entrance. While the play area is not fenced, it is surrounded by grassy areas, which in turn are bordered on two sides by backyard fences and on a third by the little league field. In other words, even a child who likes to wander is unlikely to make it to the street before you can grab him. With the grassy area between the playground and the back fences, kids actually have a spacious, somewhat contained, area for free play. My first thought upon seeing it was that this would be a great spot for a play date/picnic with friends.

    Shady, grassy areas bordering the playground
    But what really separates this playground's setting from that of most newer playgrounds are the multiple, mature shade trees. The playground area is circled by these leafy beauties, such that at least part of the playground is in deep shade at any point in the day (in the spring/summer, at least). No, the shade doesn't cover the entire play area, but at least there are cool options available. There are benches underneath the trees, making it a really nice place to relax on a hot day and watch your kids play.

    And play they will -- and play, and play, and play. I had a harder time getting Toddler X away from this playground today than I have at any other in recent memory.

    First of all, he loved the "big kids" structure (ages 5-12), and it is easy to see why.

    The structure is large and widespread, with several "branches" that allow it to feel spacious even when there are many kids running about. There are three slides and a whole bunch of climbing features to access the upper level -- ropes and ladders and twisty rope-ladders and log steps and a rock-ish wall.

    There's a nice set of monkey bars, a little table and chairs, and a puzzle down below that Toddler X really enjoyed.

    The theme is sort of a treehouse/forest mix, nicely done. As you can see from the pictures, the structure is very pleasant to look at and fits in well, aesthetically, with the tree-shaded setting.

    Age 2-5 structure
    A few yards away from this structure is the toddler structure (ages 2-5), which is also really nice (albeit a lot smaller -- but hey, so are the toddlers). It has the same treehouse theme and a couple of fun features. During our visit (late afternoon), it was completely shaded.

    Toddler X enjoyed the tunnel that you could climb up or slide down -- several 4 and 5 year-olds seemed to think it was fun. We also found what he declared to be the best set of "talky things" (those devices where you speak into one end and can hear it far away) that he's ever seen.

    The "talky thing"
    The highest opening on the structure is about waist-high, and the structure should be manageable for kids 2 and up.

    Aside from the two main structures, the park has a fantastic merry-go-round spinner of sorts that is unlike any I have seen -- Toddler X and the other kids at the park were loving it. You can climb aboard and get cozy in a seat while somebody spins you, or you can do the hard work yourself by tugging on the stationary green wheel in the middle (it was fun to see some teamwork among the kids!).

    And finally, the swings. There is a swingset with two baby swings, two standards swings, and -- wait for it -- two parent/child swings that I've only seen in pictures before and was so excited to find in real life today!

    Swings have long been the bane of my existence, as both my kids have loved them since their very first ride and would happily swing all day if somebody (read: me) would keep pushing them. The idea of a swing where I can do the work by swinging rather than pushing -- it's just mind-blowing. (In a "don't try this at home" move, I also put Toddler X to work swinging his sister before I read the instructions, which explicitly prohibit standing on the parent side. So please abide by the instructions, not our terrible example. :) )

    Don't do this.
    Though it's not fenced, this playground is a pretty good one for parents with multiple kids. The structures are close together and the playground as a whole is pretty compact, with a clearly defined boundary (where the wood chips end) that will help keep kids in place. The back side of the playground opens up to a grassy area, then backyard fences, so it seems like a low stress place to watch kids play.

    Overall, there are only two things I don't like about this playground. the wood chip ground covering, and the location of the bathroom (it's far from the playground and close to the street, and getting there requires going around -- and not through, if there's a game going on, but try telling that to a kid who has to go -- the basketball court). But those are a small price to play for a spot that lets me stay cool while my child plays happily nearby. This playground is a winner, through and through.

    The Rest of the Park. Aside from the playground and the little league field, the park features some smallish grassy areas that would be great for picnics, throwing a ball, or games of tag (several of them are shaded as well).

    The park also has a very nice basketball court, some picnic tables (though they were all grouped together in the sun near the basketball court, and weren't all that nice), and restrooms (which unfortunately have a fly problem -- though I was impressed by changing tables in both the men's and women's). And, if you time it right, there's the little league snack shack -- visions of Laffy Taffy and Fun Dip candies are dancing in my head.

    Conclusion. Los Padres Boulevard is a stretch of road that passes three pretty amazing (and very different) Santa Clara parks -- Alvarez, Henry Schmidt, and Steve Carli. With its new playground, Steve Carli becomes a great choice for an outing with your kids. Alvarez will always be a favorite of ours -- perhaps even our single favorite all-around park -- but the new features at the Steve Carli playground and the ample shade will definitely put it into our rotation. If your child enjoys creative play structures (particularly "big kid" structures -- the toddler one is fun, but not as extensive or creative) and you want to check out new features like the merry-go-round thing and the parent/child swing, it's definitely worth making the trip to this great new playground.


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