The Holy Grail of Parenting

A photoessay on urban spaces that work equally for parents AND kids. (Please send us yours!)
This post is 8 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities
Friends

Image by Grace Hobson

On a recent vacation, I had a perfect moment, one that so rarely occurs since I had a kid nearly six years ago. I was sitting on a deck, drinking a gin and tonic, and having civilized conversations with my husband’s oldest friends. Almost entirely uninterrupted.

That’s because sandwiched between our restaurant and another across the way was a grassy field full of roving kid gangs. They were far enough away that their entropic energy didn’t bother anyone, but close enough that you could still keep half an eye on them.

Our daughter befriended a local girl, cadged a piece of her birthday cake, and joined and lost interest in countless soccer scrimmages, dance parties, frisbee games, and sibling chases.The important point is that she was having a great time doing kid things, and we were having great time doing adult things. In the same place.

In my life, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like. Possibly because of byzantine liquor laws, the fact that urban land is pretty expensive to let kids run wild on it, and all the perfectly good reasons that not everyone wants our child around as much as we do.

Happening upon those urban spaces that serve children and adults equally well is like the Holy Grail of parenting.

I’m not talking bouncy houses with WiFi, or cafes where your toddler can play in a pit of toys. Those fill a need, but you wouldn’t darken their doors alone. I’m talking about the urban places that allow you, as a full-fledged adult, to do things you might normally want to do, with a happy child. Or at the very least to cross something off your list.

Beaches are a good example. Climbing gyms with good babysitters. Classes with childcare. I know they exist, but they aren’t always obvious. So please share yours—send photos of your own parental happy place, or descriptions of places that do double duty for your family to [email protected]* and we’ll combine them into a future post. Here are a few of mine:

Fun Places

In Portland, there is the magical Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB) and Bike Bar that combines: Beer (a useful ingredient for parenting willful young children)…

with a serious commitment to sustainability… (The Hopworks bike bar, for instance, is located on the North Williams “bike highway” and has 75 bike parking spaces, communal repair tools, bike-friendly to-go setups, and two exercycles out front that generate energy for the pub.)

and seriously family-friendly elements: a restaurant with a kids menu, chalkboards and play areas, and a free monthly kid-oriented event with storytime, crafts, and healthy snacks.

There are plenty of other restaurants and bars across Cascadia that are set up well for kids and parents (favorites, please?). But creating a mythical unicorn of a place that seems to serves hipsters, bike nerds, and toddlers equally well is no small feat. Our back pocket place used to be Ballard’s Sunset Tavern, which was virtually empty in the early evening, had comfy red booths and a stage, and used to serve Flying Squirrel pizza to kids before 8 pm. Since that magic stopped happening, we haven’t quite found a go-to replacement.

Functional Places

Another category of places I love are those where I can get something truly useful done while my kid is playing. But if I’m being honest, I have easily spent hundreds of hours sitting on playground benches, bored out of my mind, messing with my phone, and waiting until I can justifiably extract her.

That’s why I’m happy to see the Northwest embracing a common sense idea that has flourished in European cities: Give adults something useful to do at playgrounds. This very Danish adult fitness equipment was installed earlier this year at Seattle’s Montlake Community Center playground, thanks to neighbors who saw a need.

Montlake Community Center, by Jennifer Langston

Image by Jennifer Langston

This means parents can use the elliptical, air walkers, chest and back presses, and a funky ab thingy while their kids are swinging or practicing T-ball. (Yes, the person below is real). This kind of multitasking can create found time somewhere else in the day, which is invaluable to parents. It could also serve as a free alternative to a gym membership.

As this helpful ParentMap roundup shows, other Puget Sound parks and playgrounds have gotten on the whole family fitness bandwagon: Redmond’s Marymoor Park, Auburn’s Les Gove Park, Atlantic Street Park in South Seattle, Battan Park in West Seattle’s High Point, and Bitter Lake Reservoir Park in North Seattle.

South Seattle's Atlantic Street Park adult fitness equipment, by Linnea Westerlind

South Seattle’s Atlantic Street Park adult fitness equipment, by Linnea Westerlind for ParentMap

Free Places

In so many of the places catering to parents with kids, you’re fairly obligated to spend money. Parks, libraries, community centers, and home are great exceptions, but inflatable zones, commercial playspaces, pools, indoor gyms, art classes, museums, aquariums, coffeeshops, and zoos typically all take a chunk.

That’s one of the things I appreciate about Third Place Commons in Lake Forest Park. Yes, it’s in a mall. But the free common area adjacent to Third Place Books is a diverse and remarkably functional multi-generational space.

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Image by Jennifer Langston

Third Place’s owners have had a longstanding commitment to creating retail environments that also function as community anchors. And they have the ingredients down, based on the range of people hanging out at Third Place Commons on a random Tuesday.

There were old men cracking hearse jokes over coffee, tables of teenage girls independently texting without actually speaking each other, nannies with baby bjorns, health care workers wheeling and feeding clients, college students on laptops, and lots of moms with kids. Including this one, who snuck in 15 minutes of relatively uninterrupted reading on a Kindle.

Third Place Commons

Image by Jennifer Langston

Best of all, there’s not really any pressure to spend money at the adjacent bookstore (there’s a King County library branch below) or restaurants. Plenty of people sit for hours without buying anything, and the space hosts everything from mah johgg tournaments to German lessons to writing classes to community meetings. And it’s super kid-friendly, with giant chalkboards, chess pieces, a cupboard of toys and games, and toddler pit.

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Image by Jennifer Langston

Favorite Places

Finally, one of my favorite summertime places is the Wallingford Farmers Market. It has elevated my hump day sanity many a time. Ever since it moved from a parking lot (not toddler-friendly) to Meridian Park, it’s been an arrange-your-schedule-around-it priority for me and my daughter.

Image by Jennifer Langston

Image by Jennifer Langston

It’s handy because you can fill in grocery gaps and eat dinner there without messing up the kitchen. When she was little, I could sit on a bench in the sun and space out while being reasonably sure that she wouldn’t kill herself on the toddler play structure. (At that point, I was too burnt out to take advantage of adult fitness equipment, had there been any.)

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Image by Jennifer Langston

Now that she’s older, I can read a book, chat with friends, or even have something approximating a date with my husband. And since we usually run into a gaggle of friends from her neighborhood school, there’s a community of parents keeping an eye on everyone. It’s one of the happiest and most relaxing things I do all week.

Let us know what does the job for you and your family—send photos to [email protected]* or comment below—and we’ll compare notes.

Image by Jennifer Langston

Image by Jennifer Langston

*By submitting a photo, you give Sightline Institute permission to display it on our blog if we choose to do so—we’ll follow up to let you know! We will, of course, give you full photo credit in the caption and link to its original source or your website if you like.

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Comments

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    Third Place is great, and many of the farmer’s markets are exactly like the Wallingford one – I wouldn’t miss a week of sitting on a blanket at our Queen Anne market.

    Others:
    * Blueberry picking in Bellevue. You can even take a bus there from Seattle. Let the kids roam free, pick fresh berries, and grab veggies on the way out.
    * Outdoor movies. Sadly a little late for many bedtimes, but child noise is usually tolerated.

    And rainy day (i.e. 8 months out of the year) suggestions:
    * Libraries.
    * For those that have daytimes free, the Armory at Seattle Center puts out toddler cars, freeing up parents to have a meal or pull out a laptop.
    * Seattle’s flagship REI, specifically the climbing tree upstairs.
    * In theory, big box store child cages like Ikea or Ballard Fred Meyer. I haven’t used them myself, as kids tend to want to shop with me.

  2. Hannah says:

    Restaurant with kid spaces – Phinney Market (train table and books) http://www.phinneymarketpub.com/

    Coffee shop with kid space – Green Bean Coffee in Greenwood (train table and paper for coloring with crayons)

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