Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Playground Review: Rinconada Park (Palo Alto)

Those of you who have been following my posts for a while may remember the day, well over a month ago, when I visited Rinconada Park in Palo Alto, adjacent to the Palo Alto Junior Museum. My initial joyful reaction at seeing the fully-fenced, well-shaded, well-equipped toddler area was almost immediately negated by unpleasant encounters with caterpillars (literally infesting the playground, crawling on every conceivable surface and falling like rain from the tree limbs overhead) and the birds that were there to prey on said caterpillars (two incidents of bird poop hitting me within about 10 minutes, one permanently ruining a favorite pair of pants). 

It goes without saying that I spent Toddler X's naptime that day in the shower, making sure I was rid of caterpillars and bird poop, rather than writing a full review of the park. After that day, I tried again and again to review the actual playground, but kept getting caught up in my revulsion at the bugs and birds. Eventually I gave up. 

Now that a few months have passed, and hopefully the caterpillars have too (it's apparently a seasonal thing), I'm ready to write a review of what was otherwise a very nice park...unless you visit in early September, that is, when it becomes a battleground with nature. Here's the scoop:

  • In addition to things like a swimming pool and tennis courts, Rinconada Park features two separate play areas, one specifically designed for toddlers.
  • The toddler play area is fully-fenced and offers a good amount of shade year-round, courtesy of a massive oak tree and a few other trees. (The oak tree, however, is also the source of the caterpillar infestation, so whether it's a pro or con is up for debate.) In addition to the play structure, the toddler area includes shaded benches and picnic tables, four baby swings, two "big kid" swings and two spring toys.
  • The toddler play structure is nice and modern, with four slides (including a side-by-side), a few fun features, relatively easy to manage steps, and only one spot where a toddler could fall off. It is about shoulder-height at its highest. Ground surface is sand.
  • The "big kid" area of the park -- which is separated from the toddler area by a large lawn, and appeared to be free of the caterpillar menace while still offering partial shade -- is really nice. It offers a feature-rich play structure, a good amount of which is toddler-friendly. However, the upper levels are pretty tall, and there are a few spots where a plunge is possible, so a toddler parent will need to be close at hand. The big kid area also features a nice sand area, with a multi-level sand table that is toddler-friendly. (Note, however, that there are a number of features in the big kid area clearly directed toward school-age children -- a great array of monkey bars and only big kid swings -- so the school-age crowd will be in full-force here if you visit outside of school hours.)
  • There are restrooms available, and parking either in the lot next to the Junior Museum and Zoo (enter via Middlefield Avenue -- this lot is close to the big kid play area, but a bit of a hike to the toddler area) or convenient street parking on Hopkins Avenue (the toddler area is located right next to the tennis courts).
  • Need I mention the bugs and birds? Seriously, constant concern about caterpillars dropping into our hair or birds splattering our clothes really interfered with our enjoyment of the toddler area, and we left after only about 10 minutes. Admittedly, the oak tree that causes the problems only really covers the picnic table/bench area, the spring toys and one set of toddler swings. The other swingset and the play structure itself are out of the tree's shadow, and therefore avoid the bug menace -- but as a result, of course, they don't benefit from the oak tree's shade. Quite a trade off.
  • There was some unpleasant, homophobic spray-painted graffiti on the toddler structure. Fortunately our kids are probably young enough that they aren't able to read such nasty words, but even so, their presence made the overall atmosphere less pleasant and left me wondering about the security of the park.
  • No real cons on the big kid area, except for the tanbark ground covering, the lack of baby swings (it would be nice for younger siblings at least) and the fact that the structure has some high gaps that a toddler could fall from (not inappropriate for a school-age structure, but worth noting as a toddler con).
Had it not been for my unpleasant bug and bird encounters, I probably would have been very happy with this park. The setting is shady and relaxing, and the toddler area is fully fenced and features everything a toddler would need (I especially like that there are four baby swings). In the interest of fairness, I will go back next time I visit the Junior Museum and Zoo to see if a change of seasons eliminates some of the park's cons, and I will update this review accordingly.

Overall, do I recommend this park? Yes -- if you go at a time when the caterpillars are not floating about and the birds are not pooping. Or if you wear a full hazmat suit (do they make those in size 2T?) and carry an umbrella. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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