Breaking ground on nature would appear to be something only God could do, but on Monday, July 15 Forest Park Forever broke ground on a new feature in St. Louis’ great city park that is made out of nature.
The new Nature Playscape will not open until 2020, but some of its elements are already on view and, in fact, available for interaction. As ground crews are felling trees to open up 17 acres for the new experiential playground, they are leaving the trunks on the ground for later use.
“This is the kind of playground where, instead of having a constructed fort, you would have the logs laying there to play on,” said Lesley S. Hoffarth, president and executive director of Forest Park Forever, which is funding the project through donors.
Using a natural space like a park to showcase nature seems a basic idea, but Hoffarth and Larry Thomas, chair of the Forest Park Forever Board of Directors (and a partner at Edward Jones), said the Nature Playscape will be the first of its kind at this scale.
When Thomas imagines the project, the natural edges into the spiritual.
“The Playscape will be a place for kids to imagine themselves,” Thomas told The American. “They can enjoy the beautiful spirits out here.”
They can enjoy the wild things, too, beautiful and otherwise. Unlike its immediate neighbor to the southwest, the St. Louis Zoo, the Nature Playscape will be an unwalled part of the great city park. Crews will plant native species to attract pollinators (and because that would be more, in a word, natural), but any critter that creeps or slithers will be able to interact with the exhibits as well as the public.
In the master plan to renovate the park, what is now the Nature Playscape was first envisioned as a conventional playground with rubber tires and chain-link swings. But the idea evolved. “We realized we are missing the connection to nature,” Hoffarth said, “and its effect on health and learning.”
As such, the Natural Learning Initiative consulted on the design, along with H3 Studio, Interboro Partners, Rubus Landscape Architecture, Forest Park Forever, the City of St. Louis and local leaders in the areas of child development, experiential and outdoor education, play and access. Those local leaders included the true experts on play, children themselves. Like the child presented an expensive toy in a cardboard box who plays with the empty box, one thing that children said they wanted was nature without too much nature.
“They said they wanted a place to do cartwheels and find four-leaf clovers,” Hoffarth said. “So we will plant an open meadow with clover where they can do cartwheels and find four-leaf clovers.”
An accessible path will wind its way through the playscape, for guests who visit on wheels. Thomas noted that path also will provide new mileage for the many people who use the great park to run and walk for exercise. The idea of accessibility is being extended to include sensory experiences for guests who experience the sensory world in unique ways.
The entrance to the Nature Playscape will be right across from the World’s Fair Pavilion near the entrance to the park from Hampton Avenue, for those who want to go imagine the future of the space. This reporter used one of the downed logs as a desk to write these notes. Nature is already there inviting play.
“We want kids to dig around,” Thomas said, “get dirty.”
For more information or to donate to Forest Park Forever, https://www.forestparkforever.org/.