Child's Play: An authentic -- and free! -- nature experience awaits at Denver's flagship REI

So, you've got a kid, huh? Whether it's your own rambunctious preschooler or the bratty nephew you've been charged with keeping alive for the next five hours, the most important thing is leaving your house where valuables are liable to be destroyed and seeking refuge on somebody else's property. In this series, we'll be exploring fun, local, and quirky spots that are kid-tastic and adult-friendly.

Don't get me wrong: I'll grin-and-bear my way through all of the runny-nosed kids (seriously -- Can somebody get these kids some fucking tissues?) at the Children's Museum when somebody else is covering my admissions costs. The Bubble Room's so cool that I'm willing to risk the inevitable parade of snot, tears, and tantrums. But, the savvy Colorado parent knows there are plenty of other great kid spots, ones with a little more local flare. First up: the third floor of the flagship REI.

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You love the flagship REI for its awesome wilderness gear. My preschooler loves it for the free floor model tent rides (more on that later) and, also, the serene, nature-inspired indoor playground tucked away on the third floor between kid's shoes and women's clothes.

You see, I've been doing a lot of research on child's play lately, and there's tons of evidence backing the proposition that nature play is the highest order of play. That's because, when children are in a non-prescriptive, natural environment, there isn't anything they are supposed to do (i.e.: slide down a metal slide on a standard playground -- that has a clear and known purpose, and so the child doesn't control her play experience).

Oh, there's a slide at REI's indoor playground alright. Two actually. One's short enough to climb up, the other's built into a tree, and both are situated on the outskirts of some freaking awesome rocks and boulders. Beneath a bridge you'll find a cavernous tunnel leading to a whimsical mock stream with glittery pretend water.

Constructed back in 2000, the space "aligns with REI's values," says General Manager Pete Citrano. "The inspiration behind the play area is an increasing connection with kids in the outdoors, even in an indoor environment," he adds.

Bonus: if you, my fellow parent, accidentally forgot your reusable mug of fair trade coffee purchased from the independent shop in your neighborhood, there's a Starbucks that'll keep you amply caffeinated while you sit on the surrounding wood benches and bask in the glory that nature-based play brings.

If the weather's nice, kids can attempt to scale the big boulder outside (it's near that Starbucks we were just talking about). And, if it's really nice, you'll probably get drawn down to the nearby Platt River, where you're liable to find people kayaking and wading into the water from a beach-like knoll accessible by bridge from REI.

Other optional activities include wandering the floors of the store, ogling the climbing wall (kids five and up can climb most Saturdays, 10 am to 4 pm), and maybe popping in and out of some of the display tents (but, please, don't tell the store manager it was my idea.) Bring some protein bars, carrot sticks, and a banana, and you've got a nice little lunch to be had at the rustic pipsqueak tables located at the far end of Starbucks. For more information about the store, visit REI's website or call 303-756-3100.

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