If you’re a parent, flying out of Dulles International Airport will soon be a somewhat more bearable experience. That’s because the airport recently opened a children’s play area in Concourse B, where many international flights leave from. The contained space — known as the “FunWay” — has airport-themed climbing structures and a video console with 100 games.
This is a good thing. A very good thing. And it’s actually a bigger deal than you might think.
A few months ago, I wouldn’t really have given a kid’s play area in a local airport much thought. But after a recent visit to Switzerland with my wife and two-and-a-half year old daughter to see relatives, it became painfully obvious to me that compared to most of Europe, the US doesn’t really consider the needs of families — especially those with young children — when it comes to how we get around.
We started our trip at Dulles in mid-July, a few weeks before the FunWay was finished. We had a few hours to kill, so we play zone defense the best we could: one of us would rest while the other took off running as my daughter sprinted down the concourse and into just about every nook and cranny Dulles has to offer. (There’s lots, and a toddler will find them all.) To her, it was new and exciting, and she got to explore it all. But for us as parents, it was exhausting and, at times, stressful. There was no easy way to contain her, lest I put her in front of a screen. (Certainly not beyond me, but we were saving that for the 8-hour flight.)
But when we landed in Copenhagen, our five-hour layover was significantly easier. That’s because the Danish airport not only has communal strollers for parents to use (we had checked ours in Dulles, and it wouldn’t get to us until Zurich), but also a large play area. She got to run around and play with toys in a safe and contained space, while we got to sit back and relax as we waited for our next flight.
And so it went for the rest of the trip. The inter-city trains in Switzerland had designated cars for families — and those cars had small playgrounds for kids. The buses in Berne, where we stayed with family, allowed parents to park strollers in the area designated for passengers in wheelchairs. Even the highway rest stops in Switzerland had playgrounds.
This isn’t to say that some US airports haven’t been ahead of the curve. Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco and Boston Logan are regularly ranked as some of the most kid-friendly in the country — and even compete with some of the better airports internationally. But that hasn’t really been the case locally.
Until now, Dulles had nothing for kids — but it did have multiple smoking lounges, not to mention four designated pet relief areas. (Don’t get me wrong — I love pets. But I’d bet more kids travel than do pets.) And on Metrobus, you’re required to fold up a stroller and carry it. It goes without saying that it’s probably a distant hope that Amtrak — not to mention MARC or VRE — would ever consider a kid-friendly car. (Per its website, the best Amtrak offers is the suggestion that parents should “download a train-themed movie for your little ones to watch while they ride the real thing!”)
Don’t get me wrong: There are far bigger things the US could tackle to make the country more friendly to new families. We’re nowhere near Europe — much less most of the world — when it comes to paid family leave, for one. But that’s not an excuse not to tackle the smaller things, most of which would be far easier to implement anyhow.
Those small things send clear signals about what we collectively prioritize. Cities that prioritize bikes have great bike infrastructure; just the same, cities and countries that prioritize kids and families will build things like a play area in an airport or have a designated car for kids in a train. Kids are accommodated, not avoided.
And for anyone who thinks I’m just an annoying parent trying to bend the world to my needs and decisions, consider this: the happier kids are anywhere they go, the happier we all are. No one likes a bored, screaming child, least of all their parents. Accommodating children in small ways during travel is cheap — and has a big payoff for everyone.
On our way back to the US earlier this month, our flight was delayed by nine hours. We were all tired and bored, but there was one saving grace: We were delayed in Copenhagen, and we knew we had a place to take my daughter.
Full disclosure: Dulles Airport has provided underwriting for my employer, WAMU 88.5. And to be honest, I only heard about the FunWay when it came up in one of their underwriting spots on our air last week. The idea for this piece predated that spot, though, and I’ve received no compensation from Dulles Airport for writing this.