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

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