My family and I just returned from two lovely weeks in Switzerland - one for work, and one for vacation. We spent the first week in the western city of Neuchatel, then ventured to Interlaken and into the Alps for a few days, and ended our journey in Lucerne. I have always loved the way centuries-old cities feel, with their narrow, winding streets, public squares and eclectic architecture, and each of the cities we visited fed that fascination. It became clear to me, too, as I watched my son explore the safe and pedestrian-oriented downtowns, that lively old cities offer wonderful sensory experiences for children. From flowers to fountains, parks to patterns in the cobblestones, the Swiss cities we visited offered an abundance of sensory-rich, child-friendly features.
1: Sniffable cities
Little O loves to sniff (and touch) flowers. We found beautiful displays of summer blossoms in every public space, most within his reach. After sniffing the flowers, he'd turn and wander off into the square, heading toward the nearest fountain or musician or cafe sandwich board. Children will stop and examine anything attractive at their level, and flowers are an easy way to add beauty and interest for little ones in public spaces throughout the spring, summer and fall.
2: Watery wonders
Everywhere we went, we found beautiful old fountains practically around every corner. O loved to touch and play with the water, and though most of the water spouts were out of his reach, his dad was more than happy to help him explore them. Switzerland is blessed with ample mountain water and abundant springs, so fountains are a more common feature there than in many places. But children flock where water flows! Fountains of any sort add interest and entertainment for all.
3: Playful places
I was delighted by the number and variety of urban playgrounds we found in Switzerland - and so was O! Most of the playgrounds featured water-play areas of some sort, and we found two in Lucerne with fantastic child-operable water spouts over water tables with sluices and sand, flowing into winding shallow channels with rocks and gravel. Children from toddlers to preteens enjoyed the spaces, which were kind of mini adventure playgrounds, in the sense that there were loose parts children could manipulate and negotiate together. These spaces invited experimentation and imaginative play, as well as cooperation among children of different ages.
One playground in Neuchatel featured a shallow, round pool, along with traditional play equipment like slides and swings, but its key asset, at least to me, was an immense, old shade tree sheltering a fantastic den big enough for a small group of children (where O is headed in the right-hand photo above).
We happened on another lovely playground while strolling around the Musegg Wall area in Lucerne. It felt like a secret garden: surrounded by walls and accessed by a gate, brimming with trees, shrubs and flowers. The small playground featured a slide on a hill; two water spouts (one, above, that flowed into a stone tank, and another that flowed into a rocky channel next to a sand-play area); infant swings; and several springy teeter-totter type seats.
What I loved most about all of the playgrounds we saw was their integration of play equipment into existing natural spaces. The trees and plants in these places were old, large and shady. They provided interest and beauty, while the play equipment was new, well-maintained and installed over soft surfaces. These spaces stimulated the senses while offering safe places to play, and they were integrated right into the liveliest parts of the city.
4: Patterned and textured pathways
Swiss cities nurtured our senses and O's in so many ways, but above all, they were visually stimulating - and even somewhat challenging to a toddler's sense of balance. When O wasn't exploring flowers or fountains or playing in water, he was transfixed by the shapes and textures in the paving under his feet, and by the city birds that settled there. He delighted in walking into and out of the shallow drainage ditch in the photo on the left, above, and knelt down to touch the cobblestones often. He had to slow down to walk without tripping on the uneven surfaces - something I considered a good challenge to his developing vestibular system! The streets were so fascinating to him, in fact, that it was difficult to get anywhere without strapping him into his stroller or onto our backs.
Child-friendliness may seem to obstruct adult objectives of getting somewhere fast, but slowing down a little to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of cities with our children can only benefit all of us in the long run. I'm on the lookout for particularly sensory-rich and child-friendly parts of Boulder and Denver, so if you have any tips for where I should take little O now that we're home, please comment!