Jessica Handy became a licensed foster parent last year, and now shares her home with 18-year-old K, plus K’s two sons, M (4) and B (just turned 3). A few months ago, just on a whim, they decided to embark on what they called the “Summer Park Challenge” – visiting every public park. The first surprise was that Springfield has more than 40 parks.
“There can be some question as to where one park ends and another begins,” Handy says. “For example, is Veterans Memorial Pool its own park? Or is it part of Gietl Park? Is the Henson Robinson Zoo a ‘park’?”
They settled on using the Springfield Park District website as arbiter, and set off on their adventure, visiting a few parks per week, usually in the evening.
Along the way, they documented their visits on social media, and we are reprinting excerpts of those reports here. The Park Challenge crew sometimes included Handy’s sister Kate, Kate’s kids Nico (3) and Maryn (1), and occasionally cousins, friends, and other foster kids for whom Handy was providing respite care. We’re identifying K and her sons and other foster children by initials only, at the request of DCFS. The group also included some suburban parks in their “Park Challenge.”
“We saw new parts of Springfield we didn’t know existed,” Handy says. “We met lots of people from lots of walks of life. We felt safe and welcome no matter the neighborhood. We had fun at even the least-elaborate parks. And we found a way to occupy almost every summer evening and make the most of the season.”
At Lindbergh Park, we had a “picnic” (of fast food) on the one picnic table, and saw only two other kids playing. The parking lot filled up with adults and some of them went to play tennis. There were two regular swings and two baby swings, which wouldn’t always be sufficient for our needs, but it was tonight. M inevitably has to pee, and there was a shortage of discrete locations for that. L said it was too small, but I would definitely come back.
Westchester Park better suited the boys, but not me. Since there’s no off-street parking, we parked on Westchester Blvd., giving the 2-year-old a chance to learn that running into traffic is dangerous (the lesson came from the rest of us yelling). The playground offered some novel equipment: a four-person teeter-totter and an “infinity” circle. The main play area featured little pebbles, which might be my least favorite ground covering. Luckily, we all happened to be wearing closed-toe shoes.
Douglas Park. Joining the chorus of accolades for the new playground, we give high marks to the ziplines and the fancy swing. I appreciate the fence around the playground, as these are some energetic and adventurous kiddos. The old playground is still there for double the fun. Nah. Maybe 1.5 times the fun. Maybe less. There were pebbles at the old one and some of us had sandals, so that’s not a good combo. We didn’t go near the busy pickleball courts, but they always remind us of Grandpa Jack.
Centennial Park. We used to walk here a lot when my sister Kate lived in the Deerfield subdivision, but it sure seems different now. The good old “mountain” was still there and clearly the highlight. The boys ran up and rolled down a few times. We then checked out the playground’s unique teeter-totter, some climbing structures, and a couple of fancy swings. We also saw a skate ramp at this park – a nice touch for big kids. But we couldn’t find a water fountain for a very parched B so we left.
It was the best of parks, it was the worst of parks...
Southwind Park: It has a splashpad, fancy swings, abundant slides, the spongiest of playground ground coverings and a beautiful pond with so many turtles, K dreamed of taking one home. The only downside for this park is the long drive to get out there, complicated by a stretch of road closure on Second Street.
Comer Cox: We accidentally crashed a “Sunday Funday” event with lots of people and several kiddie pools full of water balloons. The splashpad was crowded but fun. The playground slides seemed higher than usual. The boys liked the rocket ship/rock climbing thingy.
Eisenhower Park. We arrived at the same time a baseball game was starting, so we watched that and now the boys both want to sign up. The playground was small but they enjoyed it. My favorite thing was the apple trees. We got to pick and eat (or at least taste) apples, and the kids learned where apples come from. My second favorite thing was the abundance of that really good crunching tree bark that I get a strange amount of satisfaction from stepping on. Turns out, the boys liked it too.
Dreamland Park. I’d like a day here minus the kids plus a book. The pond and fountain were beautiful, though the creek leading up to them had some garbage. The playground was pretty standard. The boys got a little carried away chasing geese, and I appreciated that the geese didn’t once threaten to attack. And when taking our obligatory picture by the sign, I learned that both boys recognize the letters M, D and A.
Jaycee Park. Met up with the boys’ cousins and had a great time! The playground equipment was fine, but the company was what really made this park. Some older boys had brought basketballs and the little kids scooped them up and played. This was one of the more populated parks we’ve been to. And I’ve come to the conclusion that dirt piles and sand boxes are the most important playground feature for the boys.
Fairview Park: B and I checked this one out on our own. It features some nice nostalgic equipment that looked like a tractor and a bus, but also some modern slides and swings.
Cadigan Park: This one is an old favorite; my sister has always taken her son, Nico, to this park. It has a play structure, four swings, three baby swings and a tiny rock climbing wall that B fell on and bit his tongue. We met Kate’s friend Candace and her daughter, and all the kids wished they were next door at Colony West pool instead.
Lanphier Park and stadium: Remind me if I ever suggest a Sliders game with small children that it’s probably not going to go well. Long lines for tickets and food, and the boys just want to run up and down bleachers and laugh when you can’t catch them. In five years, I expect to have a much better assessment of this park.
Chatham Community Park: We had a really great time. We met the resident experts (my friend Sarah’s kids) and they brought friends and I brought my sister and she brought a friend. The kids seemed to just mix in with the other park-goers and happily run around, like they were all in a Norman Rockwell painting. The bathrooms were decent and plentiful. B happily kicked off his shoes, picked up his toy toolbox, and marched himself to the sandbox where he played independently most of the evening. I later discovered he had dumped out his toys and replaced them with a better substance – sand. M was attracted to all the sports happening in this park (tennis, pickleball, football and soccer) and now wants to do all of that. Hard to say if it was just the park facilities themselves or the abundance of good company, but this one gets high points.
Veterans Memorial Pool/Gietl Park: Oh my gosh, I’ve lived in Springfield my whole life and raised a 21-year-old daughter without even knowing this place existed? Giant pool, lots of depth options (2 ft to 12 ft), a little kids’ slide, two slides for bigger folks, and some very nice lifeguards. We had so much fun! We dashed here after work and only got in an hour before the 6:45 pm closing time, but we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
Gehrmann Park: It has a lot of curb appeal with the big blue tubes and red/green/blue color palate. I’m sorry to say we spent more time eating McDonald’s at the picnic tables than exploring the playground. (“Are you drinking that sweet and sour sauce?” “I wanted a hamburger!” “Wahhh! That was MY chicken.” “B drank my sweet and sour sauce!”)
Stuart Park: I love love LOVE the dog park! I love dog park people. I love how everyone at the dog park seems to also love the dog park and do communal things, like keeping water bowls and pools clean and picking up poop and serving as a greeting committee to welcome new dogs and owners as they arrive. I love the gate, which also contains the children. Sometimes I feel a little reluctant to bring the kids into the dog park because a pack of dogs can be unpredictable, but they love it too and we talk about keeping our faces away from dogs so we don’t get bit, especially when they are first meeting. There is a playground and even though I understand it would probably be unsanitary, I always wish the playground was actually in the dog park. But I get it: It’d be covered in dog pee.
Indian Hills Park: I had never heard of this park, sort of behind the Schnucks on Sangamon-ish. The picture on the park district website looked to us like some sort of construction vehicle-themed equipment, so we were a little disappointed to see just regular park equipment. It wouldn’t actually be disappointing to live in that neighborhood and have this as your neighborhood park as a kid – that’d be great. It’s on a quiet street and it felt homey. But at this point, these kids are saying things like, “Hey! We just saw this same slide in blue!” (Not in a disappointed way or anything! They loved the slide in blue AND yellow.)
Lincoln Park: Continuing on our dog theme, we went to “Dog Days” at the park. We saw a police dog, toured an APL truck of adoptable cats, played with the Pavelkos on the playground, ran away from Mommy and threw big fits, desperately needed a nap, left in tears. But then a few hours later, Mawmaw Anna and Mommy took the boys back for a visit at the pool and they had a blast. M tells me he liked the Veterans Memorial pool better in retrospect though.
Iles Park: The boys love Iles Park. They used to live near there, and we’ve been to watch the pickleball tournament, but we hadn’t officially been as a part of the Park Challenge. So we asked Grandpa Jack when a low-attendance time would be for the pickleball courts when he could teach us. Turns out, there might never be a low-attendance time on those pickleball courts. Four courts were occupied by adults, and some neighborhood girls came by with their tennis racquets (which the pickleballers offered to replace with loaner paddles and balls). M and my 1-year-old niece liked it the best. B spread out his Memory game on the court instead. The playground equipment is always fun, and someone was making good use of the stone pavilion for a party with music. Oh, and we carefully explored the construction site next door.
Kiwanis Park and Lake Victoria Park: I knew there were apartment buildings out here, but I never knew how many until I started looking for these parks. So many multifamily housing units. It seems like they’d deserve a really good park with all those kids! But there weren’t many kids. There were adults having some sort of music gathering in the shelter. I asked someone what it was about and he said something in...French? There were lots of picnic tables and a standard playground. We drove around Lake Victoria, which is beautiful.
Henson Robinson Zoo: This was the park I dreaded the most after realizing all the places we’d have to go to knock off the list. But it was fun! My impression had been that the zoo is a little sad. Decatur has Scovill with that train and Peoria has a giraffe – how can we compete with that? But who cares if we don’t have “big ticket” animals? We have spider monkeys and...other monkey-like things! K liked the tortoise (it was really chomping away at grass), M and B liked the river otters (always adorable), and my favorite was the spectacled langur (it jumped onto the window sill and stuck its tongue out at us). I decided I’m glad we don’t have a giraffe and elephant and hippo because those guys deserve lots of space we don’t have. Plus it was great that we could see everything in just about an hour. We could’ve stayed longer at that playground though. It was a good one and having zoo animal play structures to climb on was something different.
Enos Park: I had high hopes for the park. The signage stood out from the other park district signs, but the playground itself was pretty basic. I was disappointed the bathrooms were locked. But we’d definitely go back sometime. M and his cousin quickly mastered the pole, just like Ryder on Paw Patrol.
Kennedy Park: An airport-themed park across from the airport. This one was different from the rest and really great. It had everything you’d want in a playground, plus a three-story airplane with slides and ladders. It was late by the time we got here and it turns out, the sun doesn’t stay up so late anymore. We will have to come back sometime in the daylight to give this park all the time it deserves.
Vredenburgh Park: This is in Sherwood and I figured I’d just drive around until I found it rather than GPS it (someone was also watching Paw Patrol on my phone at the moment). I think we drove down every street named after the Robin Hood theme, which got me hoping this would be a Robin Hood-themed park. Alas, it had one little leaf thing and a mushroom-looking pole of some sort. But it was fun. Tons of open space. It could be a good place for another dog park. We brought “M’s” “baby,” Babydoll, and pushed him in the baby swing.
Barker Park: As the name implies, this is where the new dog park is actually going, according to the park district website. But for now, there’s nothing here except some picnic tables, so it’s a work in progress.
Timberbrooke Park: There’s nothing much to this one either, but we were looking forward to finding one historically significant landmark. I won’t name names, but someone might have done some street art 25 years ago under the bridge. Yep, we found it.
Rochester Community Park: I see why this park was highly recommended. It features a huge wooden structure that looks like a castle and offers lots of climbing possibilities. We played hide-and-seek and I had to give up before finding our 10-year-old playmate. This entire structure is completely enclosed with just one entrance/exit. As long as you sit and guard that spot, you can just relax and let everyone run around like crazy.
Rotary Park: Such good company at this one! There were lots of kids, even to the point where the rock-climbing mountain thingie was crowded, but they were nice and helpful to each other. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell which kid went with which adult, because everyone was just helping whoever needed a hand. (Kinda like how no one knows which kids belong to whom in our family when they see us every single day.) Vito Dog joined us and some random children took him for a run. We liked the horizontal bars best, where all the boys could do some degree of flips, and I learned that no one knows what a penny drop is.
Riverside Park: We did drive by to look at horses when we went to Carpenter, but at that point we thought we had a trail ride booked. That fell through, but I still wanted to go explore. The main reason: It’s not a fenced dog park, but it’s a place where you can legally let your dog off the leash. We walked along the path that was separated from the river by a steep hill and an inviting bank of sand. The older boys climbed down the hill and got muddy and threw sticks in the water. The littlest boy immersed himself in sand, kicking off his shoes and digging his toes in, tossing the sand into the air. He also licked it off the ground. Everyone ended up going barefoot. We stayed until dark, and the boys begged to stay longer.
Washington Park: I saved it for last because it’s our home base. Still, I thought we might do something different this time, like feeding ducks or going on carillon concert day. My dad was all set to take us fishing until he discovered the fishing poles were too tangled up from the last time. Then the carillon was struck by lightning and concerts got canceled for the rest of the month. But we already knew we love this park. It’s got sand for “B,” a big climbing rock, some spinny things that you sit on and spin (that would’ve been my favorite thing ever as a kid), climbable trees, a couple of ponds, a botanical garden, platform tennis courts we used to use before they built dedicated pickleball ones, and lots of open space. It’s also the site of my favorite pumpkin-carving extravaganza in the fall.
That’s all the parks we’ve gone to so far. But little did I know City Water Light & Power also owns eight parks, which we will get to soon!
Jessica Handy is a Springfield native who was a teen mom herself. Soon after becoming a 33-year-old empty-nester, she started the process to foster other teen moms. By day, she advocates for equitable education opportunities as government affairs director at Stand for Children. By night, you might find her at a park with some kids and maybe even the family dog, if he’s lucky.