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Playgrounds full of frills and thrills -- featuring everything from a replica dinosaur skeleton to a castle complete with drawbridge -- are opening at a handful of Twin Cities locations this summer, as planners leave behind the "steel islands" of playgrounds past.

Three Rivers Park District last week opened what is billed as the largest creative play area in the Twin Cities at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove. The 40,000-square-foot area has seven play zones, including a novel circular zip line.

Ramsey County parks also had a grand opening this month for a nature play area featuring a discovery garden where kids helped plant vegetables and spices, at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township. And last week, Farmington opened a big plastic castle with slides, parapets and a drawbridge.

The new playgrounds are a bit unusual because they are opening at a time when shrinking budgets are forcing many cities to postpone or limit new equipment, said Michelle Snider, executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association. Hastings, for example, is spending $49,000 on a no-frills replacement of a 21-year-old climbing tower and slides.

Three Rivers Park District installed themed equipment recently at Elm Creek, and last year at Lake Rebecca Park Reserve in Independence.

Lake Rebecca now has a "Big Woods" play set with hollow plastic logs to crawl through and a treehouse with a slide and fiberglass eagle nesting on top. Raccoons, squirrels and other life-sized animal figures are hidden in the play area for children to discover, said Tom McDowell, an assistant park superintendent.

"The objective is to allow the kids to use their imagination and create their own fantasy," McDowell said. "They are the architect of how it gets used and what it represents to them, unlike traditional play equipment."

This month, workers finished a $1.1 million, supersized playground at Elm Creek. Park officials believe the nearly one-acre creative play area is the largest in the Twin Cities and will be a regional attraction, McDowell said.

The playground has seven play zones, including a 30-foot-long Allosaurus skeleton partly buried for kids to dig up in the sand, said Stephen Shurson, a landscape architect and project manager. Another play area will have two 14-foot-towers with a walkway between them and seven slides.

Farmington decided to replace monkey bars and other old equipment in Rambling River Park now because vendor Midwest Playscapes, of Chaska, offered a third-off discount. That brought the castle to an affordable $60,000, said city parks director Randy Distad.

Children have been swarming all over the castle with ladders to its eight-foot towers.

"I like the castle because it is so huge and new," said Elijah Mills, 5, who persuaded his dad to stop. Elijah likes the different slides, drawbridge and talking tube.

"I was playing guard at the bridge," he said. "The whole castle is so fine."

About 1,200 visitors came for the grand opening this month of Tamarack Nature Center's five nature-themed habitats sprawling over 2.5 acres, said Mary Vidas, center director.

"We call it a gateway to nature," she said, part of a trend "toward what we call greening public play areas."

Vidas said research has shown that children stay longer and are more creative and healthier in natural outdoor play areas. That mitigates the "nature deficit disorder" that studies have found, especially among urban children who more often play with electronic games than outside.

Three Rivers and Anoka County nature centers also have nature-focused play areas, and another is being built at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, said Vidas, a board member of the Minnesota Children & Nature Connection.

One of Tamarack's new habitats, called Wild Place, is an oak woods with logs and stumps piled up for kids to climb or use for forts. Another habitat is a garden with a nearby kitchen to cook the produce. The kitchen, with big windows to allow kids to watch cooks work, is partly powered by solar energy absorbed by sunflower-shaped collectors.

"We can't just create steel islands" of swings and slides on barren lots, Vidas said.

"We are coming back to putting in natural materials, greenery, trees and plants so children are interacting more with nature ... not just man-made things."

Jim Adams • 952-707-9996