Mill Valley friends release book on Marin's best playgrounds.

by Vicki Larsen – Marin Independent Journal

February 24, 2005

As the mother of three active young boys, Marianne Shine understood there was something she needed in addition to a collection of trucks, Legos and assorted balls; a good place to let the kids run loose and bum off their energy.


Often that was Boyle Park, iust a short walk from her Mill Valley home, where she was frequently joined by a former co-worker turned stay-at-home dad, Rich Shiro, and his 7·year·old daughter, Kimiko.


But one day while on their weekly visit, Shine realized she was bored. Sbe wanted a new set of swings, a new slide, new visuals. A new playground. They knew of other parks, but they just didn’t know what those parks had to offer.


That’s when Shiro, a Mill Valley freelance art director and designer, turned to her and said, “Want to do a book on playgrounds in Marin?”


Shine, a freelance copywriter, didn’t hesitate to say yes.


Of course, “We didn’t realize how many there are,” Shine says with a laugh.


There are more than 100, and, after two years of visiting just about every park in Marin, the two self-published “Marin Playgrounds,” a comprehensive book that gets down to the nitty-gritty of each playground, from parking and equipment to handicapped access and bathrooms to even the cleanliness of its sand.


(It turns out Mill Valley parks have some of the best sand around, Shine notes. “Mill Valley gets its sand from a special place from the Monterey Bay, a special sand used glassmaking. It’s very c!ean and pure.”)


Each playground is aIso rated. with a kid’s face that shows expressions ranging from a huge grin (“Satisfies all basic requirements: fencing, toilets, water, parking, general safety”) to tears (“Poor and dangerous. Don’t play here”). Playgrounds that are under construction or gone are noted, as well.


The book, which came out in 2004, is being updated for a revised edition that will come out this spring. The authors’ web site, www., has been up since last summer.


“Just about every park and rec department comes out with a seasonal brochure that lists the parks, but there’s no description of how to get to it, parking, shade, are dogs OK,” she says.


And tbe books that are already out there, such as “Play Around the Bay,” give only brief descriptions of the top county parks.


Shine and Shiro wanted to create a detailed book, with maps, that people could throw in the car or diaper bag and have handy at all times.


Most of the playgrounds were pretty easy to find. But for a few, Shine and Shiro had to play a game: Follow the nanny.


“We’d park ourselves in a neighborbood and follow them down little alleyways,’ Shine says. “And we’d ask the nannies for tips on places.”


That’s how they learned of a few relatively unknown gems, including Kay Park in Mill Valley and Heatherwood Park in Larkspur.


They also bad to learn what Shine calls “mother lingo.” I love that people have code names for the parks. There’s ‘Dark Park.’ It’s really Dolliver Park in Larkspur. And there’s one, Hillside (in Novato), that people refer to it as Hilltop. And then there’s Maris B. Freitas Park by Kaiser (in Terra Linda). Everyone knows that as the Terra Linda Water Park. “


Some people got a little worried about the project, Shiro admits, ‘because we were going to let people know about their little parks. They even got a call from one irate resident of a new housing development in Corte Madera who begged them to remove its playground’s name from the book. ‘So we were complied,” Shiro says.


Every Friday, the two would head out with an assortment of kids ranging in age from 3 to 10 years (“to kid-test it,”) Shine says), Shiro with his digital camera and Shine with her laptop. And they’d comb over the playground as if they were detectives.


Some playgrounds were great for entertaining a range of ages and children, but many weren’t.


“Memorial Park (in San Anselmo) is very hard to go to with multiple children,” says Shine. Although they love the park — it’s on their top five list —neither of the two play areas is fully enclosed, making it easy fo kids to slip away. So, if you have a toddler and an older kid, one is going to remain unsupervised, which is a problem.


“You have to divide and conquer or bribe the older kid to stay in the younger area awhile,” she says.


Other playgrounds had swing sets for toddlers and older kids too far apart. “What if everybody wants to be pushed at the same time?” she asks.


Even things like garbage cans were checked out. Too few creates problems, but some attracted too many bees, creating a different problem.


Most of the county’s playgrounds rated at least a half-smile. A few didn’t, including Bahia Parks in Novato. “What a sad playground; makes you feel sorry for the kids in this neighborhood,” the book states. “The only reason we are including it here is that it has potential. Perhaps by giving it a bit of attention the local residents will rally and try to do something about improving the condition.”


Says Shine, “We’re very frank.”

But, Shiro says, “I would take my daughter to all of them, as long as I was there. If it was with nannies, I’d feel different.”


All that footwork has turned the two into playground psychologists. Each playground has its “unique personality,” Shiro says.


“At certain times of the day, they have different moods,” Shine adds. In the early morning, there are more dads with kids and dogs in tow. Then come the nannies, the au pairs and then the moms in the afternoon. “They come in waves,” she says.


The two haven’t advertised the book at all, relying on word-of-mouth. Their best customers are the numerous mothers’ clubs in Marin. The book has also been popular with real setate agents and mortgage brokers, who give them as welcome gifts to newcomers. They’ve sold almost 500. “Whoever does come across it, it always gets great responses,” Shiro says. And they’ve donated many to libraries.


Each playground listing on the web site has a spot where people can email thoughts, comments or information that something new has been added to the park. Shine and Shiro are using those comments, as well as conversations with pediatricians “and other people who might be wise to parks,” Shine says, to update the book.


And they plan to use ratings from a playground’s heavy users.

“They can take it kind of personal,” Shiro says.


As they were setting up the web site — where playground-goers can get up-to-date information free — they had to ask themselves, “Did we just mess ourselves up here?” Shiro says with a laugh. Although some might be tempted to rely just on the web site, Shine says having the book comes in handy when you suddenly find out you have a half-hour to kill and you need to know what playground is nearby. Plus, she says, buying the book helps keep the web site running. “It’s just a quick, handy way to go,” she adds.

Many of the county’s older parks have been or are scheduled to be renovated, replacing some of the dated, unsafe equipment with the latest in kiddie-play technology. But that often means some of the play equipment generations loved — like the merry-go-round and horse swings at Scott Highlands Park in Mill Valley, and big climb-on firetruck at the Harry B. Allen Park in Belvedere — are gone. That makes Shine and Shiro a bit nostalgic.

“That is the sad thing when they update a park. They sometimes get rid of the nostalgia. Kids played on this stuff for years,” she says. “Someone made a comment once, and it was pretty funny, that there are just too many lawyers in Marin.”


Shine and Shiro have received tons of input since the book and web site came out, along with accolades.


“I’m a Mill Valley mom. I love your site! Our whole play group has bookmarked it, and it’s how we choose playgrounds!” one mother wrote.


“Your site is truly awesome,” wrote another. “I have two boys, 4 and 2, and we love trying out all the different parks on your site. My 4-year-old loves to look at the pictures before we go.”


The two have plans to create similar books for other counties; San Francisco and Sonoma are up next.


They’re looking forward to that. Now that their kids are older, the two don’t hit the playground circuit so much anymore and they miss it. “Yes, the fresh air, having lunch. But we still get together,” Shiro says.

Rich Shiro and Marianne Shine