By Leslie Ellis
Champaign-Urbana is a great place to live and raise kids, and one of the benefits of our community is its impressive parks. The various locations cater to different needs so that everyone has an outdoor space to enjoy those beautiful spring, summer and fall days. Our youngest community members, too, have several great places to explore, learn, play, and socialize.
That said, what are the best parks for babies and toddlers in the Champaign-Urbana community? We explore a few of our favorites, and tell you why:
A crowd favorite, Hessel Park entertains residents of all ages, little ones included. The paved walking path is just over a half mile, the perfect distance for a brief walk for little legs or a stroller ride. The new playground features two child-parent swings, a playset for little ones with slides and climbing features, and a squishy floor to protect babies and toddlers from inevitable falls. Of course, we can’t feature Hessel Park without talking about the brand new splash pad, which has an area with smaller water features and sprinklers that cater to children under five. The splash pad is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
900 S. McKinley Ave., Champaign
The Clark Park area is filled with beautiful, historic houses and mature trees. The neighborhood has a comfortable feel to it. The park itself is no different. Clark Park has several playground features, including basketball hoops and tennis courts. The draw for toddlers, though, is the sandbox. It is in a comfortable, shady spot, and it is filled with “communal” dump trucks, beach buckets, shovels, and other toys for digging, building, and moving sand. The sandbox at Clark Park is a toddler’s dream! Shady to boot.
Sunset Ridge Park
4102 Boulder Ridge Dr., Champaign
Sunset Ridge is tucked behind Boulder Ridge at the edge of town in Champaign, but it’s worth the drive if you have little ones. Not only does it have a skate park, tennis courts, a basketball court, and an open field for frisbee, soccer, or other games, it also has a great playground for toddlers. There are climbing walls and faux-rock features, musical toys, tall slides, and baby swings. Toddlers also enjoy the paved walking path that weaves through prairie and around the park. Note: not a lot of shade here.
West Side Park might be the oldest park in Champaign, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great option for your littles. One reason: if you have babies and toddlers who are runners, this might be the place for you. Why? The playground is gated! This park also boasts one of the best fountains in Champaign-Urbana, which can mesmerize the little ones. Thankfully the fence around it keeps children from getting soaked.
Dana Colbert Community Park
203 E. Church St., Savoy
Colbert Park is a must visit on windy days. It is home to the giant hill, which is a great place for flying kites and climbing for older kids. The park features a lake surrounded by a paved path, which is perfect for strolls with babies and toddlers who like to feed the ducks. The playground includes a playset just for little ones, with smaller slides and climbables, and two child-parent swings. The new music play is also a hit with toddlers. Oh, and one side benefit: the trains. If your child loves trains, this park is (safely) nestled right up against the tracks.
2808 S. Race St., Urbana
If you’re wanting a great evening walk, Meadowbrook is the place to go! It boasts three miles of walking paths, both paved and unpaved, that weave through gardens and prairies. Toddlers enjoy smelling flowers, looking at sculptures, and spotting various wildlife along the paths. Meadowbrook also has a great playground (my kids call it the “brown park” and it’s not hard to figure out why). Toddlers like climbing through the large wooden play structure, and they love the sandbox and swings. There are some unique features here you don’t see anywhere else in C-U.
1200 E. University Ave., Urbana
AMBUCS Park is a hidden treasure of the C-U. The park’s playground is what makes it unique. Like Eisner Park in Champaign, it has a fully accessible playground. In addition to its typical play equipment and elevated sandboxes, it has various uncommon play structures, including a wooden boat, train, and bridge that children can play and pretend in. Toddlers also create songs with the large selection of outdoor musical toys. AMBUCS Park is one of a kind.
Friendship Grove Nature Playscape at the Anita Purves Nature Center
1505 N. Broadway Ave., Urbana
The Nature Playscape embraces the free-spiritedness of children. It’s unique in that all its play features are natural. It includes a small hill that toddlers can climb on or climb under using the tunnel that goes through it. Kids love to balance on the fallen tree and dig in the sandbox. Imaginations can wander using the fort for all sorts of pretend scenarios. As if the beautiful, shady playscape weren’t enough, toddlers love running the boardwalks that wind through the Busey Woods area on the other side of the Anita Purves Nature Center. It’s a sensory experience in nature for children and adults alike. And, if little ones’ legs tire, parents can take strollers on the journey through the boardwalk.
Sunnycrest Tot Lot
505 E. Sunnycrest Ct., Urbana
If you prefer a small, quiet park for your child, this one might be the antidote to some of the larger, grander parks listed above. Tucked into an older Urbana neighborhood, this is a park geared only to kids under 5. There are infant-only swings, a small slide, ride-on animals and a fire truck. All the equipment is specifically designed for little tots (hence the name tot lot).
WHAT PARKS WOULD YOU ADD TO THIS LIST?
Want more fun with babies in the Champaign-Urbana area? Here are some more ideas.
Leslie Ellis is an instructional coach and former high school English teacher who left the classroom to be mom in chief. Her son is a sweet, friendly 5-year-old, and her 1-year-old daughter is a hurricane of personality. “I love raising my family in the C-U community. There’s no better place!”