Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

To the thousands of children who have visited since opening day last September, the Children's Garden at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., is one giant playground. And it's no wonder, as every last detail—from the 14-foot lookout to fuzzy-leaf plants just begging to be petted—was conceived with kids in mind, says Katherine Johnson, garden manager.

Near the entrance is a one-ton granite sphere engraved with leaf shapes and suspended on high-pressure jets of water. Kids rotate the sphere to align its engravings with matching impressions in the surrounding concrete.

From there, kids enter the Backyard Discovery Gardens, where they can do something that Mom or Rover would put a stop to at home—curl up in a doghouse. Nearby are playhouses gussied up with window boxes, weathervanes, and tot-sized tables and chairs. Moving from one themed area to another, kids can crawl through tunnels, race down side-by-side slides, climb atop a huge acorn, weave in and out of a model tree-root system, and stomp on "lily pads" to make faux frogs spit. A small plot of corn provides the perfect setting for hide-and-seek, and sand-play areas near running water are great for digging and damming.

Brightly colored metal flowers offer a subtle lesson on pollination. The center part of each flower has a bell, xylophone or horn. As kids flit from one noisemaker to the next, a grownup can explain that similar behavior in bees results in new plants. The flowers are stroller-high so the tiniest tots can get in on the action.

Beyond the Backyard Discovery Gardens lies Adventure Woods, where kids can wade in a pond or race corks down a creek. Play structures designed to look like tree houses are connected by wooden and rope bridges. Nearby, a net suspended over tall grass lets kids see what a meadow looks like to a butterfly. But the crown jewel of Adventure Woods is the Canopy Walk, a stroller- and wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that gradually rises into the treetops. On custom-designed play structures contained by rails and rope webbing, kids can make like monkeys, clambering their way through the trees to Evergreen Lookout. The lookout's deck is 14 feet above ground, but because of the way the land slopes away from it, kids get a top-of-the-world sensation and a bird's-eye view of the arboretum.

In many respects, the Morton Arboretum's Children's Garden represents the latest in playground philosophy, equipment and design. Its planners were ahead of the curve on certain playground trends that are just emerging or reemerging, such as site-specific design, interaction with nature, accessibility and the promotion of dramatic play so kids' imaginations, not just their bodies, can run wild. Other aspects of the design, such as the inclusion of water features, educational components and plenty of things to climb on, are established trends that kids can find in newer playgrounds from coast to coast.

And Evergreen Lookout exemplifies an interesting twist on a bandwagon trend in playground design—building play structures so high that kids could practically high-five a passing cloud.