WASHINGTON — When visitors drive through Watkins Regional Park in Prince George’s County, they may notice a few odd elements as they near the end of the grounds.
Faces appear in trees that otherwise stand tall and strong; sounds of musical chimes float through the air; and yellow bricks that sparkle in the sunlight replace the old concrete sidewalk.
A storybook sign under a rainbow arch reads, “Welcome: Home of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Suddenly, the scenery makes sense.
Legs from the Wicked Witch of the West stick out from under Auntie Em’s tornado-ravaged home; tall flowers and a farm tractor sit in the field of poison poppies; flying monkeys hang from the trees; and Oz’s Emerald City towers above.
There’s also a big red barn, a state fair, a giant ruby slipper, and of course, a scarecrow, a lion and a tinman — not to mention a handful of children running throughout.
The Wizard of Oz playground is the newest addition to Prince George’s County’s collection of 26 “imagination” themed playgrounds.
“We need to provide activities for kids to get outside and play,” says Ronnie Gathers, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation with the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
And a colorful and creative playground does just that.
“Physical education has been minimized in schools and so there are very few opportunities for kids to engage in activities where there’s fun, there’s creativity, there’s socialization.”
Gathers says one way to tackle the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic — and the high rates in Prince George’s County — is to build play spaces that attract kids and encourage physical activity, as well as an active imagination.
Interactive learning components are also hidden throughout the Wizard of Oz playground. A word search decorates one side of the state fair structure, excerpts from the story are posted throughout, and a musical instrument station lies just behind Oz’s green castle.
“Playgrounds are more than just a play structure. They help in terms of health and [a child’s] overall development,” Gathers says.
The 14,000 square-foot Wizard of Oz playground, designed by the county’s landscape architect, opened to the public in July, but the official grand opening celebration will take place on Sunday, Oct. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.
Visitors can visit the Land of Oz, as well as the park’s other family-friendly amenities, such as a miniature train ride, a carousel, a nature center and a picnic area.
Gathers says the county has received great feedback from the community, and he’s hoping the fantastical playground continues to attract new and returning visitors.
“It’s a huge plus to put these kinds of things within a community,” he says.
“It furthers our society in terms of their development; it gets us away from the computer screens and the cellphones, so kids are not walking the streets looking down, they’re looking up.”
And perhaps catching a glimpse of a few flying monkeys while doing so.
Watkins Regional Park is located at 301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro, Maryland