One of my most unexpected blessings in motherhood has been learning to truly love the outdoors alongside my children. Witnessing the immeasurable benefits of nature and sunshine on our entire family has come in tandem with finding some of the very best outdoor play spaces in the region. As Richmonders, we are fortunate to have a multitude of family-friendly and free options to help us reap the benefits of good old vitamin D, especially as we all try really, really hard to put chilly winter weather and the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. Each of the outdoor play spaces on this list can easily be found via Google or using your maps app of choice.
1. Forest Hill Park
This stunning park in Richmond offers so much, including a playground, paved trails, creeks for splashing and wading, and opportunities for wildlife sightings. We love to start at the playground and then work our way down to the lake. For my son Gus, who’s four, spotting turtles at the waterfall is always a highlight. We typically park
near the historic Stone House and walk across the field to the playground.
2. T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge and Brown’s Island
Infusing history into recreation is natural at the T. Pott Bridge! Not only does this spot allow for beautiful views of the downtown skyline, but there’s Richmond history to be learned from the pedestrian bridge’s planks, titled “Three Days in April 1865.” While my children read the planks with us, their favorite is playing hide and seek at Brown’s Island. You’ll also want to check out the newly erected Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Brown’s Island. If visiting on a weekend, park at SunTrust on Semmes Avenue (south of the James). North of the river, look for parking on 5th and 7th Streets or in the Tredegar parking lot (where there are only about fifty spots). Also, there are plenty of porta-potties near the bridge.
3. Robins Sculpture Garden at VMFA
You don’t necessarily need to have a mini Monet on your hands to enjoy the beauty of VMFA’s Sculpture Garden. There are plenty of tables and other spaces for picnicking, plus open space to run and explore. Be sure to check out the water steps, as my children call them. The rhythm of the water is so soothing, and going up and down them guarantees a good nap for all.
This all-inclusive playground in Richmond brings such joy to all who visit. My son loves the sensory wall, while my eight-year-old daughter Eloise prefers the music instruments and playing house. With such a variety of equipment and activities – including water troughs, swings, and even a garden – this park is a dream for play dates, and just right when family and friends are visiting from out of the area. Everyone is sure to find something to love! As an added bonus, PARK365 has free parking in a lot that’s very close to the entrance.
5. Powhatan’s Hill Park
A hidden gem of the Richmond parks, Powhatan’s Hill Park has a gorgeous view of RVA’s skyline, as well as wonderful playground equipment, basketball courts, and a baseball/softball diamond. My kids love this park because of the open space to run and play beside the playground and the bumpy slide, which is wide enough for two kiddos to enjoy together. Street parking is the only option. Try to park in front of the community center for a short walk to the playground.
6. Dogwood Dell
This one area of Richmond provides several activities for the family: hiking the trails to get to Pumphouse Park; playing at the Carillon Tot Lot; running through the open areas near the Carillon Tower; and creative play at both the Ha’Penny Stage and Dogwood Dell Amphitheater. As our children have grown, we have started doing this as one outing, but when they were toddlers, we did this in separate trips. Pack a picnic to enjoy in the shade by the historic Carillon Tower and enjoy! Dogwood Dell has a large parking lot that leads to either the playground or the route to Pumphouse Park.
7. Mid-Lothian Mines Park
A 44-acre preserve filled with nature and history to discover awaits at Mid-Lothian Mines in Chesterfield County. This park truly lends itself to imaginative play in nature. While we walk the paved trails, the park transforms into an enchanted forest as logs become balance beams, and sticks are wizard wands. Pack oats or lettuce to feed the ducks in the lake. Additionally, be sure to read the signage and check out the ruins of the mines. This historic preserve was the site of America’s first commercial coal mine in the 1700s.
8. Echo Lake Park
The serenity of this Henrico park is unmatched. I love the stroller-friendly loop around the lake, where my children often spot herons, egrets, turtles, and other wildlife. Additionally, the playground area serves both big kids and toddlers, with two different play structures.
9. R. Garland Dodd Park at Point of Rocks
When you arrive at this park in southern Chesterfield, park at the large playground. You are likely to be impressed by the massive play structures, however, this is only the start! In addition to the large playgrounds, there is a smaller insect-themed playground. Finding the second playground is a whole separate activity as insect art along the trail leads the way. My children actually prefer playing at the critter playground, as they call it, because it’s unlike any other play area around Richmond. Pack a bug catcher and some binoculars to walk through the marsh along the floating boardwalk.
10. Poor Farm Park
From the inclusive playground to the perfect wading creek, this Hanover park is ideal for those hot summer days that we all know will be here sooner than we think. We like to arrive early in the morning, so we can enjoy time at the playground before it gets too hot. Then, we take the trail down to the creek, where the kids splash and play to cool off. The sandy area makes it easy to enjoy a picnic lunch in the shade, too.
The simple joy in being outside together has connected our family in many ways. I am so grateful for the options right here in Richmond. As you begin planning your family’s spring outings, be sure to take advantage of the many free outdoor play spaces the region has to offer.
Photography: Lindsay Garrison