For art in the outdoors that’s sure to put a smile on any kid’s face, head to Grounds For Sculpture, one of our favorite Day Trip destinations here at Playground.
Located near Princeton in Hamilton Township, NJ, the gorgeous outdoor sculpture park was created by the artist and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson in 1992 and features nearly 300 contemporary sculptures, most larger than life and many life-like, by Johnson and other artists such as Kiki Smith, Marion Held, and George Segal all set within 42-acres of spectacular gardens. As you wander the grounds you’ll also encounter ducks and peacocks, including a fabulous white one, pergolas and lotus ponds, great spots to eat, and, of course, tons of fabulous photo ops.
Kids love the hidden surprises like the the River Birch Allee, which feels like a magical road to a fairytale, or the Bamboo Observation Tower where they can get a birds-eye view over a Japanese zen garden. Another highlight for kids is the ability to interact with the art. GFS makes it easy for families to know what’s okay to touch and what’s “eyes only” with signs at each sculpture that include not only the artist and name of the work, but also easy to spot “go” and “stop” green or red signs.
These let kids know which sculptures they can touch and which are only for looking at. The park also hands out a pamphlet of the proper etiquette, such as, “Please do not disturb or chase the peacocks or other wildlife,” which makes it even easier to explain the rules to younger kids.
GFS also warns that some of art works may be of a “challenging, sensitive and/or mature nature.”
Other than one very scary huge sculpture (comically called “Has Anyone Seen Larry”) of witches with animal heads and a huge bubbling cauldron of bones, blood, and crocodiles (and is really no scarier than your average Halloween ghoul), the art was fine for young children. (Yes, there is a bit of nudity, but nothing inappropriate in our opinion.)
For the most part though, the whimsical painted sculptures here by Johnson (the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, the founder of Johnson & Johnson) often amuse both kids and adults alike. Johnson’s life-size, realistic sculptures are all throughout the park— and many recreate famous paintings, such as Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party and Matisse’s Dance –– it’s a great way to introduce these masterworks to kids while they have fun exploring them in three dimensions. (You can even spot Johnson himself at GFS on occasion, as Melissa did recently).
Where to Eat
Melissa and Georgette are both fans of the restaurant offerings at GFS. Georgette and her family tried The Peacock Café, which they thought served surprisingly good food for a “grab and go” place, sampling a delicious hummus, kalamata olive and pita platter; a burger with handcut fries; and individual Margherita pizzas for the kids that were topped with fresh basil and tomatoes.
For a sit down meal with celebration-worthy location and menu, Rats Restaurant (named after a character in the Wind and the Willows) is where you should make a reservation. The entire restaurant was built to emulate Monet’s home in Giverny, and the views, especially from the outside patio, are as beautiful as the food on the plates is delicious. This is a favorite of Melissa’s, and she loves to indulge on the lovely French-inspired lunch dishes such as trout meuniere, chicken paillard, or the croque monsieur (with a cocktail or glass of wine to really make it a special day out).
(If you just need a quick break, The Van Gogh Cafe in the Welcome Center is fantastically decorated with a Starry Night ceiling, and offers coffee, drinks, crepes, and pastries.)
Grounds For Sculpture
80 Sculptor’s Way
Hamilton Township, NJ
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm
NOTE: Timed tickets are required to visit GFS. Buy your tickets online in advance to avoid disappointment and to save a few dollars as well
Cost: Adults $18 / Kids (6-17) $10 / Under 6 Free