Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s not a big name tourist destination. You probably won’t find it on a must-see list… until now. Located in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, this second largest city in Oklahoma has lots to offer. Reroute your road trip to explore this part of the United States – it will be one of your kids’ favorite places I promise. Experience my family’s favorite playground and a breathtaking garden to create a day that all members of your family will enjoy.
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I dare you. Go to Google and search for “best playgrounds in the United States”, and you will find the five-acre paradise called The Gathering Place. See all the different sections on the park map including towers, ropes, sand, water, gardens… The list is endless. Remember, road trips need to have some relaxed kid play and downtime; I can’t think of a better place.
After hours of exploring at the playground, continue past the water play area to explore the boathouse. It’s more than just a place to rent kayaks (sometimes) and a clean, air-conditioned bathroom. The two-story atrium in the Cabinet of Wonder looks like a museum collection. With drawers and shelves full of special collections, you could easily spend an hour relaxing and discovering here. Bonus: most people stop at the playground; this is a quiet respite on a hot day. Did I mention its free?!
Check out the Discovery Lab nearby. I can’t wait to check it out this summer as it’s brand new and equally fabulous.
- Come in the morning. This place gets hot and crowded in the summer. I’ve been told it’s crowded the rest of the year as well.
- Make sure at least one of the kids has a watch so you can set up a meeting time if needed.
- Don’t plan to bring a book to stay busy; music on headphones is a good option for parents.
- Encourage your kids to stay together and look out for each other.
- Set up a meeting place. With so many areas to explore, there is a high probability you will get separated.
- Matching shirts. Now is the time to pull out the homemade tie-dye shirts, or any easily-visible color theme. When you see the hundreds of children running amok, you will understand.
- Bring your water bottles and snacks. While there is shade, there will be lots of sweating.
- Let them take off their shoes. Trust me. Park yourself with their shoes and take it one area at a time.
- Leave extra clothes in the car. If the kids aren’t wet from water play, I promise they will be super sweaty. Make the drive to your next destination more pleasant; towel them off and change their clothes.
- If you are easily overwhelmed, head to a quieter smaller section like Swing Hill or the Great Lawn.
Warnings and Snark
Don’t come to the Gathering Place if you’re a worrier. I’m not exaggerating. You will spend hours stressed out and panic yourself into ruining the fun for everyone.
- Unless you plan on following around your one child and climbing all the structures with them, this is not the place for you.
- If you don’t let your kids take risks, this is not the place for you.
- If your kids doesn’t listen to you and won’t follow your directions, this is not the place for you.
- If you or the kids get overwhelmed by too many people… you see what I’m fixing to stay?
Now, cool down, grab some lunch, and drive only four minutes to another Tulsa masterpiece at the Philbrook Museum of Art. This Italian Renaissance mansion-turned-art museum is a must-see for its architecture and art, but the big star is the 25-acre formal garden past the back door. There’s a reason it was called the “most beautiful place in Oklahoma” by the House Beautiful magazine.
With several floors of art throughout the mansion to explore, don’t overlook the beauty of the actual house. Yes, look at the statues and the paintings, but slow down and appreciate the architecture. Check out the schedule for special art exhibits – Salvador Dali’s Alice in Wonderland was there when we were – as well as Native American art.
While this is a paid museum, the cost is low. Bonus if you have a North American Reciprocal Membership (NARM) for your home museum, this is a free visit for you. (Read more about this money-saving program and plan for other trips.)
- The gardens are unfortunately not free; they are part of the admission ticket.
- Picnics and snacks are welcome in the gardens, but you might want to bring a picnic blanket.
- Challenge your kids to count the sculptures hidden throughout the garden.
- Look for the two cats in the garden – real cats not sculptures.
- Plan to put your little in a stroller for the museum; child carriers must be worn on the front.
- Look for kid extras at the door leading out into the garden. My girls loved putting on some butterfly wings, and the boys grabbed some jump ropes.
- Prepare to walk around the trail and head to the magical glass cabin.
- Put your kids in charge of looking for the tree swing outside – mine thoroughly enjoyed it.
- Prepare to wander around outside in the heat: water bottles, sunhat, and good shoes
- If you’re an Oklahoma public school teacher, you can get a free yearly membership!
- If you’re coming for a photo session, gotta plan ahead and let them know.
(Limited) Warnings and Snark
If you’re worried that your playground-loving little is too young for an art museum, walk around for half an hour before heading to the gardens. If you avoid art museums, check out a few pieces and give it another try; you’ll be a better person for it. If nothing else, enjoy the lovely house and pretend you’re in Tuscany. Remember, you don’t have to see the whole museum; do what you can do. The real star is outside.
Other Nearby Treasures
- Have you considered a drive into Kansas? The Tanganyika Wildlife Park just outside Wichita is soooo worth the three hour drive. It’s fabulous.
- Check out the Tulsa Zoo
- Stay outside longer at the Tulsa Botanic Garden
- Walk or bike along the Arkansas River as it winds through Tulsa connecting The Gathering Place to many statues, park, and fountains along the path
- Head south outside Tulsa to the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks, Oklahoma