Purposely Playful

In searching for a definition of “natural play,” you’ll likely find descriptive words like “imaginative” or “ecological.” If you ask friends, neighbors or colleagues, it is unlikely any of them will give the same answer. However, if you ask young families in the Des Moines, Iowa, area, they are likely to respond, “Go see the Natural Playscape at JesterPark.”

Jester Park is a 1,834-acre county park situated along SaylorvilleLake. The park offers a wealth of recreational opportunities, such as camping, boating, equestrian trails, golf and, tucked into its farthest northwest corner adjacent to an existing and underutilized bison and elk exhibit, a Natural Playscape. This one-acre project is the brainchild of Lewis Major, a naturalist with Polk County Conservation. Major spends much of his time educating children from local communities about the world they inhabit. He noticed the need for a place where children are allowed to escape from the structure of everyday life, and experience nature in a hands-on manner. He envisioned a “… fun, interactive, natural environment where the highlights of the natural world--the creek, the prairie, the forest--are assembled into a safe geographic area. It’s all 1,800 acres of the park inside of one acre.”

The Kickoff

Landscape architects with RDG Planning & Design were retained by Polk County Conservation to facilitate a discussion with members of the community regarding the meaning of natural play, the potential elements of that experience and, ultimately, the physical articulation of their shared vision. These discussions revolved around the ideas of imagination, interaction, safety and accessibility. A unanimous decision was reached that the project should include only natural, recycled or reclaimed materials (no pre-fabricated play structures allowed), and water should be a central element of the experience.

The design team took these fundamental tenets and worked to construct a cohesive design concept. The resulting plan is inspired by Iowa’s indigenous landscapes, the adjacent natural features of the park and the less-obvious natural phenomena, like the movement of the sun and moon and star constellations.

The Jester Park Natural Playscape provides a safe and accessible venue for imaginative play that encourages children and families to move outdoors and away from their televisions, computers, video games and other technological diversions of modern life. The Playscape provides a unique, interactive play experience and an opportunity for individuals and families of all cultural and economic backgrounds to discover that nature is fun and exciting.

A Closer Look

The play elements of this project are constructed of naturally occurring (stone, wood, earth, water and native vegetation), salvaged or recycled (telephone poles and driftwood) materials. The Playscape is divided into several smaller areas named for their physical and cognitive inspirations:

Tall Grass Tangle

In time, this winding network of paths will be entangled with indigenous prairie grasses. Visitors wind their way through a miniature grassland labyrinth, and experience a small piece of habitat that once dominated Iowa.

Forest Of The Dead

Inspired by the adjacent decaying floodplain forest visible from the Playscape, this area of the project encourages visitors to go “… over, under, around and through …” salvaged timber logs set into earth berms. The berms cradle the hollow logs and allow children to climb over while minimizing fall distances. This area of the project is designed for the expansion and integration of more reclaimed forest material over time.

Stone Henge

The Playscape not only celebrates the earth, but also suggests that humans are part of something larger. The circular stone monolith feature creates an unusual setting for a play area, giving visitors clues through integrated art of the celestial bodies above our planet, and how we are connected. The stone monoliths have viewfinders cut through them that provide a site corridor to some of the greater park’s natural assets, such as SaylorvilleLake. The area also functions as a “council ring,” and is often used for outdoor classroom activities.

The Wetland

This small and shallow oasis is a clean, refreshing wading pool. It provides exciting water features like a small limestone waterfall and bubbler stone. Not only do these features draw visitors into the project through sight and sound, they also provide a dynamic example of the life-giving powers of water. Major notes the small pool also attracts native visitors, dragonflies, water bugs, bullfrogs and painted turtles, which are sure to intrigue and fascinate park guests.

Grass Slide, Log Stairs And Boulder Scramble

This green, soft, grassy hill offers users a chance to slide or roll to the bottom, and then charge up again. The log stairs and boulder scramble offer an alternative--and sometimes challenging--route back to the top.

Pathways And Bridges

While an overriding goal is to utilize natural materials, it is also important that visitors with special needs be able to experience the Playscape. To that end, the pathways were constructed using limestone edging and red decomposed granite. This combination allows storm water to seep into the ground while providing an accessible and visually contrasting material for those with mobility issues and visual impairments. The accessible pathways wind and crisscross, making them experientially interesting as well as functional. Several foot bridges constructed with donated, recycled composite decking lead visitors over dry creek beds and miniature gullies that mimic landforms and plant groupings found in Iowa.

Art Integration

The natural Playscape incorporates art into all elements of the project. The first component that visitors encounter is a rustic, 18-foot multicultural entrance feature adorned with intricate carvings and a giant spider web in one corner. Also near the entrance are three light bollards artistically crafted to resemble old tree stumps. There are several mysterious petroglyphs carved on rocks strategically placed throughout the Playscape. Originally designed art tiles and carvings can be found throughout Stone Henge, offering visitors soft hints to its meaning and purpose. The fossil plates buried in the Archaeological Dig area are handcrafted and painted to appear real. Major notes, “… visitors may not realize it, but they will be surrounded by--and interacting with--art.”

The Jester Park Natural Playscape is designed to be a colorful and visually engaging environment. Vertical and horizontal design elements are given both refined and unrefined organic forms, depending upon their purpose. Through the selection and use of art, red decomposed granite, buff and yellow Iowa limestone, clear water, indigenous flowering plants and unique deciduous and coniferous trees, the design of the landscape seeks to pique the interest of all users. The Playscape visitor is visually immersed in the rich tapestry the elements create through color and texture. Curvilinear red granite pathways undulate throughout the project, weaving among green earth berms, golden prairie grasses and colorful flowering plants for all seasons. Clear water cascading over yellow limestone can be seen from nearly all vantage points within the Playscape. Petroglyphs of star constellations, native animals, such as bison and elk, and depictions of various fossils are placed throughout the Playscape so that visitors will continue to discover them through repeated visits to the area.

In June 2008 The Jester Park Natural Playscape opened to the public. Major has held several interpretive classes there, and has been surprised that “…the Playscape is not teaching children to play naturally, but is teaching parents to let their children play naturally. The kids know how to do it.” When asked which component of the Playscape is used most heavily, Major states, “The water is huge. Life is water, we’re tied to it … it’s amazing.”

While the cultural, recreational and educational value of the Playscape is subjective, its impact on overall park use is not. Since its opening, JesterPark is seeing an influx of families and visitors to the previously underutilized northwest area of the park. Park officials are monitoring the usage of adjacent park shelters, and are seeing a 300-percent increase in reservation rates over previous years.

When asked how he knows the Playscape is a success, Major says, “It’s simple. Kids are interacting with nature, parents are becoming comfortable letting them, and they are all unplugged. It’s doing what we wanted it to do.”

G.W. Justin Platts, ASLA, is a Partner and Landscape Architect with RDG Planning & Design. For more information, visit www.rdgusa.com/parks/.