Play Grounds

No stodgy health-class spiels here: The Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, a $35 million health-and-fitness wonderland, arrives March 17.
Indiana is fat. Nearly one in three adults is obese, good for 10th in the nation in 2016. And Indianapolis? It’s been America’s unhealthiest city two years running, according to the American Fitness Index.

The problem? Hoosiers didn’t want to listen to a health-class lecture. “In our surveys about what exhibits members wanted, health and fitness always placed last,” says The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis CEO Jeffrey Patchen. “People would much rather see something related to space or Hot Wheels.”

Enter celebrities. The museum coaxed 92-year-old golf-course guru Pete Dye out of retirement. Signed Colts quarterback Andrew Luck as a spokesman. The Colts, the Pacers, the Fever, the Indians, the Fuel … at this point, it’d be easier to list the local professional teams the museum didn’t partner with.

The museum didn’t do this halfway. The 7.5-acre The Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience is The Children’s Museum’s biggest expansion in 40 years. From an Indianapolis Motor Speedway pedal-car racetrack to a mini golf course designed by Dye and his wife, Alice, 12 sports and 16 local legends are represented. “We knew that a health-and-fitness experience couldn’t be about ‘Come weigh your child and take their BMI,’” Patchen says. “It has to be fun, interactive, and engaging.”

The mini golf course wasn’t always so mini. Dye offered to design the holes, fashioned after courses he and Alice had crafted all over the world, for free, on one condition: The course had to be full-swing.

Dye came around when he realized arming kids with clubs was, um, hazardous. Patchen pulled in to Crooked Stick for a meeting with Dye, who was out on the course testing some of the new equipment with kids. “I walked out there, and I asked, ‘How are you?’” Patchen says. “And he said, ‘I’m not very good.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Kids are gonna kill each other.’” So Dye dreamed up a 27-hole, pint-sized putting version instead.

The 12 sportscapes are tailored for tots. They range from 16 basketball hoops in child and adult heights to pedal cars. “The spaces are designed so parents and grandparents can interact with their kids in a noncompetitive environment,” Patchen says. Just don’t count on low-stakes games of H-O-R-S-E (loser gets the bench seat on the carousel!).

A sports-themed tree house might steal the show. With a trunk sculpted to look like track shoes and tennis rackets, the 60-foot-tall sports-fantasy take on the traditional treehouse features a spiral staircase winding up to three slides branching off six platforms.

That is, if the National Art Museum of Sport doesn’t claim that crown. Nearly 1,000 works by big names like boxing legend Muhammad Ali immortalize iconic sports moments, including a dust-kicking Ty Cobb slide.

Night owls can hoop it up after hours. The outdoor areas will remain open until 8 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day, so the expected 275,000 to 500,000 additional visitors can practice their free throws late into the night (well, you know, 7-year-old late).

The legends are all in. Andrew Luck has called the new playground a “sports utopia” with “everything a kid could ever want.” Dye’s architect told Patchen, “Of all the courses we’ve worked on in 20 years, this was our favorite.”