20 Fun Outings for Kids with Special Needs
These parks, theaters and attractions are great for children of all abilities.
There are many family-friendly spots in and around Arlington, but the choices become more complicated when you have children with special needs. Where can you go for an afternoon of fun when your party includes kids with mobility impairments, sensory challenges or who have a tendency to run off? Parents of special needs children know that crowds, noise, lighting and bathrooms can be an issue. So can staff who don’t have experience interacting with visitors of all abilities. As one of those parents, I have spent a fair amount of time scouting out things to do with my kids—ages 5, 9, and 11. Here are some of our favorite places, with a few pointers for making the most of each excursion.
PARKS & PLAYGROUNDS
Bon Air Park
This multi-use area, which includes stretches of Four Mile Run and the W&OD Trail, features paths for biking and walking, bathrooms and water fountains in multiple locations, plus several small playground options and a rose garden that keeps my kids mesmerized. There are large fields for running and playing, as well as tennis courts and picnic spots. Note: It is near a stream.
850 N. Lexington St., Arlington
Burke Lake Park
This large park in Fairfax County has tons of parking and beautiful trails. It is partially wheelchair accessible, with family-friendly activities such as a train and carousel (both require tickets), an ice cream shop and a large playground. The staff is friendly and accommodating; they allowed my son to “wait” for the train on the playground when he could not handle the line.
Pro tip: Buy tickets for the train and carousel when you first arrive, then go play or walk. Ask for accommodation with the train line if you need it; the line it can be very long.
7315 Ox Road, Fairfax Station
Just off Georgetown Pike in McLean,this enormous park has endless equipment options, including high backed-swings, ramps between structures and a large carousel with wheelchair-accessible horses and chariots. There are water fountains and bathrooms, a shady pavilion with tables and benches, a train, and plenty of sensory equipment for kids to explore. My son especially loves the variety of bouncing apparatuses, although we have personally struggled with the sheer size of the park and large crowds. While the play areas are enclosed, it can be challenging to keep up with multiple children who run and/or siblings of different ages.
Pro tip: Bring headphones for children with sensory issues. This has helped us tremendously as we transition back to the car when our autistic child is tired and overwhelmed.
6317 Georgetown Pike, McLean
Drew Park and Sprayground
This small, sunny park with a low-key sprayground is partially enclosed, with a hill that leads to the fields by Drew Model School. There are no bathrooms in the park, though there is a nearby rec center about 1/8 mile away. (A bit of a trek for some kids.) It’s a wheelchair accessible space with lots of sensory-friendly equipment.
2310 S. Kenmore St., Arlington
Gravelly Point Park
My kids love to watch planes taking off and landing at Reagan National Airport from this small park along the George Washington National Parkway. It’s an open field with benches and tables and plenty of parking. There are portable toilets, but no water fountains. Note: It can be very windy and there is immediate access to the water’s edge, but the spectator opportunities are fun even if you stay in the car.
Pro tip: Park at the far end of the parking lot to avoid the bicyclists on the Mount Vernon Trail.
Hayes Park and Sprayground
Located just a few blocks from the Arlington Central Library (and across the street from Arlington Science Focus Elementary) this shady, partially-enclosed park has playground equipment suitable for both younger and older kids, along with tennis courts and basketball courts. There is a sand-play area, great swings for different age groups, water fountains and bathrooms on site, and a shaded pavilion with tables and benches. The water park is low-key and there are no dumping buckets or strong water streams. Partially wheelchair accessible.
Pro tip: Bring an extra water bottle and towel for any park with a sand-play area.
1516 N. Lincoln St., Arlington
Lacey Woods Park
We love this small, shady park with water fountains, bathrooms, and a shaded pavilion with tables and benches. It’s next to a busy road (George Mason Drive, where it intersects Washington Boulevard) but the park is enclosed with a fence and gate, and opens up to a large field. There is a small sand-play area, and basketball courts for playing, scooting or biking. A meandering path leads to a wooded area, which is fun for family walks but might be an issue for kids who are at risk of flight. Partially wheelchair accessible.
1200 N. George Mason Drive, Arlington
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens
An ideal spot on a beautiful spring morning, this sprawling, wheelchair-accessible botanical garden in Vienna is, for us, a family favorite. The 95-acre site is enclosed and there are benches throughout for resting. Staff is supportive and there is a simple and fun scavenger hunt for children. Note: there is water access at one spot.
Pro tip: Avoid weekends. It’s practically deserted during the week.
1200 N. George Mason Drive, Arlington
This big, inviting playground in Northeast D.C. was jaw-dropping for my entire family the first time we visited. It’s completely wheelchair accessible—even wheelchair-welcoming, and was designed with all types of children in mind. The sensory elements are beautifully thought-out. I couldn’t find a single activity that hadn’t been built to accommodate mobility-impaired children or caregivers. This is a very special park!
Pro tip: Go early on the weekends. My son needed to leave as it got closer to lunch and more crowded.
1701 Gales St. NE, Washington, DC
This small, fully-enclosed park is partially wheelchair-accessible. Its smaller size keeps crowds to a minimum, which lets my easily-overwhelmed kids play longer. There is access to the W&OD trail for longer walks and another nearby playground. You’ll find bathrooms and water fountains on site, as well as a shaded pavilion with tables and benches.
1001 N. Kennebec St., Arlington