Award Winner - May 2009
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Outside the Lines

Jester Park Natural Playscape
Granger, Iowa

S U B M I T T E D    B Y

RDG Planning & Design
in Des Moines, Iowa

Size: 40,000 square feet

Project Cost: $204,343

Quick Tour:

  • The Tall Grass Tangle
  • The Forest of the Dead
  • The Wetland
  • Stone Henge
  • The Archaeology Dig
  • The Grass Slide, Log Stairs and Boulder Scramble


ichard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods documents a national epidemic of youth becoming more and more withdrawn from the outdoors. With the opening of the Jester Park Natural Playscape in Granger, Iowa, in June 2008, Polk County is providing a spot for unscripted, imaginative play that uses naturally occurring, recycled or reclaimed materials to bring kids and families together in the outdoors, and away from their television, computer and videogame screens.

The location of the playscape is a result of Polk County Conservation's aim to bring more usage to the northwest area of the park. Prior to construction, park users seemed unwilling to drive so far into the park and were not interested in the program elements in the area, which included shelter facilities, tent camping and a live bison and elk exhibit.

Since the playscape's completion, its impact on the surrounding area has been objectively monitored and measured, and a survey showed that the playscape was not only used 58 percent more than the traditional playground in the park, but also that 94 percent of the playscape's users were in the park solely for the purpose of visiting it.

The Natural Playscape was developed around the concept of unscripted play and multigenerational involvement, versus the now-ubiquitous play structures found in parks across the country. As part of the planning process, individuals and families were invited to offer ideas, and the product of the sessions was the concept that the Natural Playscape would include no prefabricated play equipment.

As a result, the natural play elements are made from naturally occurring materials like stone, wood, earth, water and indigenous vegetation, as well as salvaged or recyclable materials like telephone poles and driftwood.

It is divided into smaller areas named for their physical and cognitive inspirations. The Tall Grass Tangle features a winding network of paths, while the Forest of the Dead features salvaged timber logs set into earth berms, giving kids a chance to climb. Stone Henge, a circular monolith, features viewfinders that allow children to consider the park's natural assets, while the Wetland provides a wading pool, waterfall and bubbling stone. The Grass Slide, Log Stairs and Boulder Scramble invite visitors to slide or roll down to the bottom, then charge back up the steps again and again.

The Natural Playscape's designers took care to ensure that while the materials used were natural, attention was given to visitors with special needs. Pathways constructed using limestone edging and red decomposed granite allow stormwater to sink into the ground while maintaining an accessible and visually contrasting path for those with mobility issues or visual impairments.

Throughout the project, art elements visually engage visitors and invite them to explore the playscape further. The first component visitors encounter is a rustic 18-foot-tall entrance feature adorned with intricate carvings and a giant spider web. Three light bollards near the entrance look like old tree stumps, and mysterious petroglyph carvings are strategically hidden on rocks throughout the area. Originally designed art tiles and carvings can be found throughout Stone Henge, while the fossil plates buried in the Archeological Dig are handcrafted and painted to look like the real thing.

Whether they're rolling down the Grass Slide, splashing in the Wetlands or getting a nice view of Saylorville Lake through a viewfinder in Stone Henge, visitors of all ages and abilities are sure to come away from the Natural Playscape with a little more enjoyment of the great outdoors.


W H A T   T H E   J U D G E S   S A I D

Great use of materials and creation of play zones; wonderful integration of textures, sounds and setting a stage for creative recreation and play. This is an exciting example of making use of our imagination for a better play experience.

David Burch

A most impressive natural play-park! Every twist and turn in the park is like a new encounter that at the completion of the journey one feels they have had a well-integrated mind-and-body experience. The subtle/natural design features are well thought-out and laid out…a truly unique park!

Tom Poulos

A beautiful, thoughtful work that is site-appropriate, both inward and outward. This project is not only environmentally conscious but spiritually moving as well.

Greg Houston

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