Feature Article - May 2014
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The Enticing Outdoors

Get Minds & Bodies Moving

By Jessica Royer Ocken

At this point we've all heard the talk about—and are perhaps engaged in the battle over—the challenge of getting kids outside and moving around.

"There's the idea that play is not in a kid's life anymore," said Trish Burns, manager of Peck Farm Park in Geneva, Ill. "Kids' lives are structured, and paired with the stranger-danger scare from a few years ago, this has impacted that generation and the current generation. Some kids don't go outside even in their own yards. There's no more going out and not coming back until dinner. There are lots of TVs and computers and game devices. These keep kids inside and make them less likely to explore and learn on their own."

But Burns also noted that people have begun to fight this trend, including parks and recreation professionals like her. And among the weapons in their arsenal? Playgrounds! The best playgrounds work to overcome the aforementioned challenges and give kids an opportunity for what they desperately need: creative, unstructured play; a chance to connect with and experience nature; and, of course, physical activity. And the best of the best are beautiful to look at and engaging to the whole community—because they're artistic, because they're educational and because they connect with something deeply loved by those nearby.

So don't despair if you find a sea of small couch potatoes or a legion of highly regulated toy soldiers around you. Instead, enjoy these examples of innovative, excellently designed and executed playgrounds and play equipment, and be inspired to create—or add to—a wonderful play space of your own. Because yes, it's just playing, but it's also really, really important.

Back to Nature

Peck Farm Park, a part of the Geneva Park District, is a 385-acre natural retreat. It's long been a spot for local nature-lovers to enjoy, but this past October, it received a huge boost when the Hawks Hollow Natural Playground opened. "We only had two weeks of good weather before it turned cold, but we had 200 to 500 people a day," reported Burns. And even in the winter, with the water elements turned off, several families a day came to explore the space. "The whole point is to get people out there interacting with nature, playing with dirt and sticks and having fun."

To that end, Hawks Hollow is a one-acre bird-themed play environment, which connects thematically with the bird habitat and restored prairie nearby and also provides many, many educational opportunities related to birds and the natural environment in the area. The entry plaza features an OK-to-touch exhibit with feathers of all shapes, textures and sizes, and a hands-on creek flows through the play area (when it's not winter) so visitors can splash in and try their hand at building a beaver dam or sculpting with mud. "Children like to manipulate their environment—don't we all—so we created some framework structures that they could adjust, add to or remove during play," explained Eric Hornig, principal at Hitchcock Design Group in Naperville, Ill. In addition to the creek and mud-art area, there's a giant bird nest that guests in the play space can add to with sticks.

Other play features include the Falconers Message Center, where a system of ropes, pulleys, barrels and tunnels allows kids to send found-object "messages" to one another, the Songbird Stage where simple instruments are available to use as folks try their best bird calls or rendition of "Rockin' Robin," and Raptors' Roost, a tall play element that offers a breathtaking, birds-eye view of the surrounding prairie. The park is also an "electronics free zone," Burns reported, "so we ask kids and parents to put their electronics away. The whole point is to be out and away from screens."

This playground was entirely custom-made and designed to blend in with and enhance the natural environment around it. In fact, many of the materials used were reclaimed from the site, such as ash trees fallen to emerald ash borer beetles. "This gave us a chance to recycle what would otherwise be waste from this park and other parks within their system," Hornig explained. This wood was used for walls, benches, signs and the log balance beam. "[The logs have] an added benefit of displaying the squiggly paths of insects prominently, providing opportunity to understand how they work." Loose materials (pine cones, sticks, rocks) were also collected from the property, so they're "free, readily available and easy to replace as needed," Hornig added.

"Unstructured play is not an element in a kid's life anymore," noted Burns once again. "We'd never had a playground here and hadn't intended to, but then the idea of nature play surfaced. We focus on environmental education here, habitat restoration, so this playground fit in perfectly with our mission and goals, and the response from the public has been fantastic."