Not all playgrounds are created equal. It’s something I learned in the pandemic years, when I drove absurd distances to new playgrounds just to have somewhere to take my toddler.

Some playgrounds are perfectly fine, a great standby for the neighborhood kids. Others are practically theme parks, with attractions that could keep my daughter busy for hours.

This list is the latter — the destination playgrounds worth packing up the car and making a day of it. There are also a few honorable mentions that aren’t quite as elaborate but worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Here’s hoping they bring your family some (mostly free) fun and places to tire out the kids for an easier bedtime.

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Federal Hill Park

300 Warren Ave., Baltimore

If you’ve visited the Maryland Science Center recently, you know there’s an excellent playground right next to it, by Rash Field. But there’s an even better one just across the street.

Atop what was once a military fort is Federal Hill Park, with picture-perfect views of the Inner Harbor and a history-themed playground featuring recreations of The Federalist, a ship built by Baltimore merchants in 1788; the signal tower that once alerted the city of incoming ships; and the B&O Railroad roundhouse.

All of that is pretty impressive, but the real reason it tops the Rash Field playground is the shade.

Federal Hill Park is covered in large, leafy trees, offering parts of the playground relief from the summer sun, depending on the time of day. Many of the benches and grassy areas where parents can relax are shaded as well.

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A wide shot of Federal Hill Park Playground's three history-themed structures: (from left) Signal Hill Tower, The Federalist ship and the B&O Railroad. A running child is framed through the railroad car opening.
Children play at the Federal Hill Park playground on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023. Play structures represent parts of Baltimore history: (from left) a signal tower, The Federalist ship and the B&O Railroad roundhouse. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Other perks: The ground cover mimics the look of the stone pavers in other parts of the park but is actually a spongy material that cushions falls. It’s also fenced, which keeps kids away from the park’s frequent cyclists, runners and dog walkers. My daughter loved the playground’s “treasure hunt” feature, which encouraged her to search for hidden emblems. And it’s likely to be full of playmates — it’s frequented by many local families.

Cost: Free to play, but expect to pay for parking.

Parking: Your best bets are the metered parking spots along Key Highway on the north side of the park and Covington Street to the east. If you’re planning to stay and grab a bite or explore for a while, it’s worth paying $20 for the parking deck next to the Rusty Scupper restaurant, across the street from the park.

Closest restroom: There’s a public restroom across Key Highway at Rash Field.

Nearby attractions: The Maryland Science Center is the obvious one. Grab ice cream at Bmore Licks (about a five-minute walk) or get lunch at The Outpost American Tavern (about five minutes in the other direction), a cute neighborhood spot with a kids’ menu and booth seating.

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Kinder Farm Park

1001 Kinder Farm Road, Millersville

I’m willing to bet most people don’t go to Kinder Farm Park just for the playground. It’s an agricultural history attraction that displays farm equipment like old tractors and is home to a variety of animals, like pigs, goats, chickens and turkeys. There’s also a network of trails for hiking and biking.

But the playground could be an attraction unto itself. It’s built into a gently sloping hill with slides to take kids from one tier to the next. Just as your little ones tire of one play area, they’ll discover there’s another down the hill.

A wide view of Kinder Farm Park Playground as seen from the bottom tier.
Kinder Farm Park playground, as seen on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, is built on a gently sloped hill and has slides that connect the three tiers. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

When we visited on a summer weekend, there were dozens of kids at play. A merry-go-round outfitted with a climbing rope net was particularly popular. And we very much appreciated the multiple large shade canopies for relief from the heat.

Cost: $6 per vehicle, unless you have an annual pass

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Parking: Bypass the main lot by the visitor center and drive a little farther down Kinder Farm Park Road to park next to the playground, even if you plan to visit the rest of the farm first. Then you can get right into the car when your kids are worn out from the playground.

Closest restroom: Inside the park’s visitor center.

Nearby attractions: You can easily spend half a day at the farm. But if you work up an appetite, The Social restaurant, about a six-minute drive from the park, has a “lil social” menu with buttered noodles for your picky eater.

Blandair Regional Park North

5700 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia

There’s more than one playground at Blandair Regional Park, but only one that matters: the one in the North Area.

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The North Area playground is massive — maybe the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s separated into vignettes of sorts, with a multi-story space-themed tower as its centerpiece. There’s also a farm-themed area, a dinosaur structure, musical elements, climbing walls and nets, and a rocking ship that can hold several children.

Blandair Regional Park in Columbia (Rachel Cieri Mull)

Bonus: There are bocce and croquet courts, along with a couple of horseshoe pitches, just down the sidewalk from the playground. (Keep in mind, though, that these tend to attract a senior crowd who may not want kids interfering with their games.)

One other thing to remember: Blandair also has East and West areas, each with their own playgrounds that are perfectly fine but not remarkable. You want the North Area. We initially drove into the West Area and witnessed more than one family on the phone with a confused friend or relative, trying to direct them to the prime spot.

Cost: Free

Parking: The parking lot is a generous size but fills up on weekends.

Closest restroom: There’s a decent public restroom onsite.

Nearby attractions: Blandair is less than 10 minutes from downtown Columbia, home to Toby’s Dinner Theatre, the Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue, and a new entertainment district with a Charmery ice cream shop and a Busboys and Poets restaurant.

Annie’s Playground

864 Smith Lane, Fallston

I’ve been hearing about the wonders of Annie’s Playground in Fallston since before I was a parent, so I was eager to check out its $1.5 million renovation, completed this spring. Tucked down an access road in Edgeley Grove Park, the playground was originally built in 2005 in memory of Annie Cumpston, a 6-year-old killed by a hit-and-run driver.

The old wooden structures have been replaced with modern, durable ones that replicate parts of the original playground, like a treehouse-themed tower and a slide that looks like an elephant’s trunk (my daughter’s favorite part). It’s not quite as big as Blandair, but it has a similar layout, with lots of space between different elements. There’s a fire truck climbing feature with a slide, a musical garden, and a few mythical beasts, along with a netted miniature baseball diamond dubbed Ben’s Ballyard.

Annie's Playground in Fallston (Rachel Cieri Mull)

Be warned: With the exception of a couple of pavilions, shade is scarce here, and the ground — that cushy, rubbery material — gets hot. On our lunchtime visit this summer, when the sun was high in the sky, we saw kids quickly lose steam and crawl under the playground to cool down.

Cost: Free

Parking: There’s a generous parking lot.

Closest restroom: There’s a public restroom onsite.

Nearby attractions: Bel Air’s Main Street is about a 10-minute drive from the playground, with a variety of locally owned shops and restaurants. Sunny Day Cafe serves breakfast food until 3 p.m. (there are lunch options, too) and the staff was very sweet to my daughter.

Angel Park

9685 Honeygo Blvd., Perry Hall

Angel Park is anything but your standard playground, so clearly marked by the people who helped build it. The park was built in memory of Ryan Sczybor, who died of leukemia as a baby, and designed with the input of thousands of elementary schoolers. It was constructed almost entirely by community volunteers, with fenceposts, pavers and even some play spaces covered in the names of people and businesses who contributed to the effort.

The playground is compact but dense, painted with fairy-tale scenes and cartoon characters outside, inside and underneath; my daughter especially enjoyed a climbing wall that looked like Jack’s beanstalk. It was designed to be inclusive of kids with disabilities, so the swings and ziplines have secure seats, and there are monkey bars at several heights. There’s also a fenced-off section for babies and toddlers to cruise.

Angel Park in Perry Hall (Rachel Cieri Mull)

Shade isn’t exactly plentiful, but there are a few covered benches. The maze of nooks and crannies underneath the playground’s raised walkways offers some relief from the sun and great games of hide-and-seek.

Cost: Free

Parking: There’s a small lot for playground parking, plus a bigger lot for the Perry Hall Library next door.

Closest restroom: Inside the library.

Nearby attractions: The Perry Hall library, just across the parking lot from the playground, has a well-stocked children’s section. On a recent Friday there was a bucket of chalk and stencils at the entrance for a chalk-the-walk mental health awareness event, and there was a scavenger hunt for kids inside. Angel Park is also less than 10 minutes from the White Marsh Mall and The Avenue for shopping and dining.

Honorable mentions:

Thomas A. Dixon Jr. Aircraft Observation Area

The playground itself is nothing special. The big draw is watching up close as commercial airliners land at BWI Airport — fun the first few times for the average kid but hours of entertainment for the aviation geek.

Thomas A. Dixon Jr. Aircraft Observation Area (Rachel Cieri Mull)

The Castle Playground at Patterson Park

Like the Federal Hill playground, this one pays homage to Baltimore City history, including formstone and a Bromo Seltzer clock tower. It’s near the lake, where you’re likely to spot ducks, frogs and other critters.

Downs Park

This beautiful bayside park in Pasadena sports a playground with a massive, multistory tower. Kids love it but might need to be rescued if they climb too high and can’t get down (in my experience, at least).

Patapsco Valley State Park Hilton Area

This tire playground in Catonsville — literally old rubber car tires secured into climbable patterns — has been a favorite since I was a kid. The simple novelty makes it worth a visit.

Indian Creek Playground

My favorite hidden gem is a bit farther afield for Baltimoreans, located in the Prince George’s County town of Berwyn Heights. This playground was designed to honor the Nacotchtank, an Algonquian Native American tribe who lived in the area, with play structures shaped like wigwams, dreamcatchers, totem poles and canoes.