- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

A parenting dilemma always seems to crop up in the wintertime: Small children have energy to burn but fewer places to do it.

That’s why any indoor space that allows youngsters to run, climb and crawl freely is an excellent place to be. Indoor shopping malls have long been a destination for families. In fact, many have developed designated children’s areas for free play.

The recently opened expansion at Tysons Corner Center features a 1,990-square-foot children’s play area. Cleverly located near the AMC movie theaters and food court, the play area is a popular spot for those with children younger than 7.

“We love it,” says Jill Marterella of Gainesville, Va., as her son, Blake, 2, plays. “It allows me to come to the mall and him to let some energy out. I’m glad they added it. The mall really needed something like this.”

The play area at Tysons is centered around a literacy theme. It includes climb-on giant books and a reading tree where young visitors can hide, crawl or slide. Sculpted bears, bees, a dragon, a turtle, an owl, a butterfly, ABC blocks and lots of flowers also fill the play area.

The floor is padded, so babies and toddlers can explore. The preschool crowd has a good time running around, jumping off the animals and hopping from block to block.

“I like the tree and the slide,” says Andrew Chagnon, 2, of Annandale.

Andrew’s mother, Chris, says the play space is so popular it can get crowded.

“It probably needs to be three times as big,” she says, “but this is good for this time of year, when we don’t go to the playground.”

The play area is “fenced off” with benches. Parents can sit and watch, and children are almost completely contained. Children who play in the area must be less than 42 inches tall. Stroller parking is off to one side. The area closes from 2 to 3:30 p.m. for daily cleaning.

Mall marketing manager Eric Kulczycky says the play area has been very popular since its opening in the fall.

“We’re happy we can offer this experience to the community,” he says.

Additionally, Tysons Corner is offering free children’s entertainment near the play area with performer Mr. Knick Knack at 10:30 a.m. every Friday. Also, a new Kids Club meets the first Saturday of every month at 10 a.m. The free club, for children younger than 10, offers special mall discounts as well as entertainment and special craft projects.

Several other area malls have children’s play areas for a little wintertime diversion. At Dulles Town Center in Sterling, Va., Jet Blue Airways sponsors the second-floor play space. The area features child-size planes and other airport vehicles for playing and pretending. At Fairfax’s Fair Oaks Mall, children can climb on giant breakfast food.

In Maryland, Westfield Shoppingtown malls in Wheaton (lower level by JC Penney), Montgomery (Bethesda; lower level by Sears) and Annapolis (in front of JC Penney), all feature Playtown, a play area for young children.

Springfield Mall features a carousel ($2 per ride) as well as a play tower operated by Planet Play.

When you go:

Location: Tysons Corner Center at 1961 Chain Bridge Road in McLean has opened a new children’s play area.

Directions: The mall is accessible from the Beltway, Interstate 66 and Virginia Route 7 (Leesburg Pike in Tysons area). The play area is located in the expanded part of the mall, near the third-floor food court and the AMC movie theaters.

Hours: Mall hours are 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. The play area is closed daily from 2 to 3:30 p.m. for cleaning.

Admission: Free

Parking: Plenty of mall parking is available. Stroller parking is available by the play area.

More information: 703/893-9400 or www.shoptysons.com.

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