Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Playground Review: Houge Park (San Jose)

You know how when you return as an adult to a place you visited as a kid, you are always surprised by how much smaller it seems? Well, I had just this sensation (but in a good way!) upon visiting Houge Park in San Jose with Toddler X the other day. Our last trip to the park was in March, when he was a just-beginning-to-toddle 13 month old, and my impression was that the playground and its features were too big and advanced for him. Fast forward six months, and the playground could not be more perfect -- safe enough for right now, but exciting and challenging enough that I know he'll love it for years to come. In fact, I wish we'd come back sooner, because I think the smaller structure would have been appealing at even 14 or 15 months.

Overall I was very impressed, and Toddler X and his buddy had a great time romping all over the toddler section. Yep, you guessed it -- Houge has catapulted onto my top playgrounds list. Here's my review:

  • Toddler area (separated from the big kid area by a short distance, not a barrier) is large and has a variety of features, including five (5!!!) baby swings, two fun spring toys, a fire truck structure (which looks rather antiquated) and the two modern play structures pictured above.
  • The larger toddler structure (top picture in the photo above) is fantastic -- long and relatively low (maybe shoulder height at its highest), with four slides, two bridges (including one of those swaying bridges, at a great height just a foot or two off the ground), only one spot that a toddler could really fall from (and it's not too high) and a nice, pleasing design. I felt very safe letting Toddler X run and climb on this structure.
  • The smaller toddler structure (bottom picture in the photo above) is also great, but primarily for younger toddlers. It only gets to about waist high and literally has NO place where a child could fall off, but still has enough features (including an inclined tunnel and a slide) to be entertaining. It's actually the exact same design as the one at Cahalan Park in Blossom Valley (review to come), and at Cahalan it entertained Toddler X and his buddy for quite a while. At Houge, though, with the nice larger structure right nearby, Toddler X and his pal had no use for the smaller one.
  • There is plenty of shade over the toddler section in the morning hours (we were there 'til around noon), though it looks like the area may get direct afternoon sun.
  • Park as a whole is large and set amidst a pleasant residential neighborhood, with ample street parking all around and a lot right near the toddler area, with an entrance just past the tennis courts on Twilight Drive.
  • Huge lawns, plenty of trees and shaded areas, picnic tables, restrooms.
  • Very popular (meaning there were a lot of kids playing in the toddler area on a weekday morning), but large enough that it never felt crowded.
  • The toddler section is not fenced on any side, and there are no barriers to keep toddlers from running out into the larger park. If you have an explorer, you may have a difficult time keeping him or her from wandering away from the toddler zone.
  • Tanbark! And sand! You know the park designers were fully aware of the wonders of the squishy ground surface I love, because they included one small path of it through the middle of the toddler section. But besides that it is tanbark under the swings and larger play structure, and sand under the smaller one. Sand, I can deal with -- it's annoying in shoes, but a reasonable soft play surface. But shards of splintery wood in areas where kids will be running, playing, tripping and landing? Who thought of that? Not enough of a reason to avoid an otherwise great park, but worthy of complaint nonetheless.
  • The big kids play structure is visually appealing, but not great for toddlers -- high levels and plenty of places to fall off = heart palpitations for toddler parents. Stick to the little kids side.
Overall, I really, really, really liked the larger toddler play structure at this park -- mostly because it has such a safe, fun design, but also because it was totally shaded when we visited, which was really pleasant on a sunny day. And I'm not sure if Houge is frequented by a particularly friendly group of people, or if the layout is just conducive to chatting, but we got to know several other toddlers and their parents or grandparents as they were playing nearby, making for a pleasant experience.

We left looking very much forward to our next visit, and I think that's one of the best things you can say about a park.

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