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Harford Magazine

Five playgrounds that helped Harford County families endure the pandemic

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Harford County playgrounds helped get Cathy Szydlowski through the pandemic.

The 64-year-old Bel Air resident lives just down the street from the Lyn Stacie Getz Creative Playground, which was partly designed by kids. Szydlowski helps take care of her 4-year-old grandson, who has been diagnosed with autism.

Young Elliott Wagner doesn’t talk and even if he did, he wouldn’t understand what a coronavirus is and how one could wreak havoc with his daily routines. But Elliott’s face lights up when he is on the swings and engaged in the repetitive, rhythmic activity that he finds soothing. And when he tumbles out of the rocking teacup chair, he laughs with delight.

“Elliott’s school kept closing and reopening throughout the pandemic,” Szydlowski said. “But he loves spending time outside, so it’s great to have this playground to go to that‘s so close to our house.”

County residents have access to more than 100 playgrounds spread out from Edgewood to Darlington. Harford County alone operates 96 playgrounds covering 4,891 acres, according to Kathy Burley, director of the Harford County Department of Parks & Recreation. Other parks are run by the municipalities in which they’re located.

Burley said that even she didn’t fully appreciate the parks’ importance until the pandemic invaded Maryland.

“People were so grateful that they could get outdoors and have a safe place where they could let their children run,” she said.

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“These kids weren’t going to school. The indoor gyms were shut down. At one point, our outdoor facilities were the only game in town for people who wanted to get exercise.”

“I was floored to see older individuals bringing their lawn chairs to the parks, sitting 6 to 12 feet apart, and having conversations,” Burley said.

“These people wanted to meet up with their loved ones and they did not feel safe doing it anywhere else. That sight really made it hit home how important and absolutely necessary the parks are.”

Harford County parks range from massive structures resembling medieval castles to feature-filled miniatures that could fit inside a modest backyard. Below are five parks with distinct personalities that illustrate the range of offerings.

It’s worth noting that two unique green spaces are not on this list: the under-construction Bear Legacy Adventure Trail, which is closed until August, and the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, located on portions of the former Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad corridor. Now, the trail is in two sections separated by about a mile and a half of wetlands. In the next few years, a connector segment will join both ends into one, 8-mile trail running from Fallston to Forest Hill.

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“The Ma & Pa Trail is by far the most consistently-used park in Harford County,” Burley said. “Unlike a ball field, everyone can find a way to enjoy it: dog walkers, grandparents, toddlers and people on bikes.”

Annie’s Playground

864 Smith Lane, Fallston

Burley described the mammoth play paradise, built in 2006 to honor the memory of Annie Cumpston, who died at the age of 6, as Harford County’s only “destination playground.”

It’s easy to understand why this playground attracts visitors from all over Maryland. It includes a puppet theater, indoor-outdoor amphitheater, dragon and elephant slides, a Whiffle Ball field, memorial garden and picnic area.

On a recent cool spring day, 4-year-old Michael Giddings of Bel Air bounced happily up and down on a preschool version of a trampoline as he enjoyed one-on-one time with his mother and away from his new baby sister.

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Hillary Giddings, 32, hoisted her son into the air and helped him move hand over hand down a set of triangles suspended from a crossbeam about 5 feet off the ground. Michael squealed with delight.

“One more time,” he said.

Alfred B. Hilton Memorial Park

4020 Gravel Hill Road, Havre de Grace

This pocket-size structure packs an impressive number of educational activities into every square inch.

The playground honors Harford County’s only Medal of Honor recipient, Alfred B. Hilton, a Black soldier and flag-bearer who fought for the Union during the Civil War. There are historic photographs and the Medal of Honor citation, but also a replica cannon, a “find the flag” tactile finger maze, a slide and a child-sized cutout of a soldier wearing a Union uniform in which kids can insert their faces.

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Hilton was a 21-year-old farmer and free Black man when he enlisted in the army. Union Army Gen. Benjamin Butler wrote in 1864:

“The bearer of the national colors, when the color-sergeant with the regimental standard fell beside him, seized the standard, and struggled forward with both colors, until disabled by a severe wound at the enemy’s inner line … and when on the ground he showed that his thoughts were for the colors and not for himself. He has a special medal for gallantry, and will have his warrant as first sergeant.”

Lyn Stacie Getz Creative Playground

301-333 W. Ring Factory Road, Bel Air

Before the 2001 groundbreaking, organizers asked youngsters to draw pictures of features they’d like to see in their playground. One example: a miniature fire truck. Another — Milo, the 25-foot tall orange giraffe with red spots who “greets” visitors.

Though it resembles Annie’s Playground, the “giraffe park” has more equipment that moves — a seesaw, swings designed to hold a parent and child, a swaying net bridge and a round green structure that updates the merry-go-round. Even Milo’s head bobs.

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Perhaps that potential for repetitive movement is why this playground is a favorite for parents of children with autism. Plus, it has at least one important safety feature.

“This is one of the few places I can actually take my kids and let them be around other people,” said Rachel Heise, 32, of Abingdon. Her daughter, Savannah Gagliano, 13, is on the autism spectrum and her 4-year-old son, Alexander Heise, absorbs information more slowly than his peers.

“I have to know where my kids are every second,” Heise said. “This park makes that easy to do because there’s only one exit.”

Rockfield Park

501 E. Churchville Road, Bel Air

The organizers of the 5,000-square-foot Chesapeake Sensory Plaza, Harford County’s first nature-based playground, weren’t afraid to make a few waves.

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The water taps of the 60-foot channel system that flows down the middle of the interactive exhibits are turned on during warm weather. Kids enjoy splashing ankle deep in the ”river,” pump water from the pumping station, and explore replicas of the mill wheels, lock gates, flaps, forks and collecting areas that can be found along the real Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Educational signs teach kids about the watershed’s delicate ecosystem and the wildlife in and around the water. Other panels explain the water cycle from the earth into the atmosphere and down again, while another panel lets kids forecast the weather with movable dials: Will it be hot or cold? Cloudy or sunny? Dry, drizzling or pouring rain?

Schucks Regional Park

301 Schucks Road, Bel Air

One standout feature is the sensory trail, a one-tenth-of-a-mile strip that includes 10 interactive features aimed at helping kids who can’t see or hear get the maximum enjoyment from this park.

But, anyone — kids, grandparents, people who are blind and those with 20/20 vision — will get a blast out of the 9-foot chimes that span two octaves, the roller table that visitors can pull themselves through, the optigear panel with its interlocking gears, or the kaleidoscope panel with optical illusions.

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At one end of the trail is the Miracle League field that is aimed at getting athletes with disabilities to play baseball and softball.

The custom-designed field has a rubberized surface that makes it easier for players with limited mobility, including athletes in wheelchairs, to get from base to base.

In addition, players who need a little extra help can have a volunteer “buddy” on the field with them.

Best of all? It’s free.


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