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Colene Hoose breaks ground on playground designed to improve child development and relationship with nature

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Jordan Mead
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A look at Wednesday's groundbreaking of a new 16-acre natural playground at Unit 5's Colene Hoose Elementary School in Normal. The $5 million project is fully funded by former Hoose student Charlie Jobson.

For most playgrounds, people immediately think about climbing, swings and slides. Though play can be much richer.

Colene Hoose Elementary School broke ground Wednesday morning on its new playground. But what’s different about this playground is that it incorporates nature on a new level for child development.

The playground will cover 16 acres and is being designed by Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong. It will include an Alphabet Labyrinth, a Snail-Shaped mound, a River Garden, an Amphitheater and more to bring elements of nature to the schoolyard.

Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds is constructing the playground. Founder Adam Bienenstock said while aspects to artificial playgrounds like climbing are important, this playground will go beyond that.

“Play is about all of your senses. It’s about creating things. It’s about loose parts. It’s about finding little nooks that are just for you. It’s about all of the other things,” Bienenstock said. “It’s that magical place that you remember when you’re our age and you look back as that cool thing that you remember doing when you were a kid with your buddies.”

Bienenstock said if people have learned anything during the span of the last two years, it’s that health and a strong immune system are important.

“We’re hard-wired for this on an evolutionary scale. We all, sort of, are part of nature. But that means more than just in the hokey sense. My father is a world renown immunologist. [It] all comes from being in contact with that biodiverse environment, and kids today are having less and less time in contact with it,” Bienenstock said.

Bienenstock said if interacting with the outdoors does not become part of schools now, he worries children won’t have other chances to explore through outdoor activities.

“So, it’s super important that we start to create these environments that have all of that richness and all of those experiences and all those senses and all of that macro and microbiota that are so important to our health as part of our everyday experience. Doing that at the school is pretty much the only place left that we can be sure they’re going to get their dose,” Bienenstock said.

$5 million donation

The playground is made possible because of Colene Hoose Elementary alum Charlie Jobson.

Jobson donated $5 million for the construction, and he plans to donate roughly $200,000 over the next three years for maintenance.

“It’s kind of a special moment for me. I feel good about giving something back to a great community and some great teachers and great people in the community,” Jobson said.

Jobson said he first had the idea after coming back to Normal and after his time spent in Scandinavia where natural playgrounds are more popular.

Jobson said being back in Normal and donating to Colene Hoose makes him think of his parents who lived in Normal for 40 years.

“I think they’d be happy about it and pleased. Actually, my mom passed away in October. I told her I was going to name the playground after her, and she was happy about it,” Jobson said.

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An early rendering of the new natural playground coming to Colene Hoose in Normal.
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Courtesy

Moving forward, Jobson said he hopes kids can truly connect with nature, use their imaginations and feel like the new playground is their home.

“COVID’s really brought out [that] we need the outdoors and outdoor classrooms are good. It helps kids just connect with nature, learn how to take appropriate risks, and also if they connect with nature when they’re kids, they’ll be more likely to take care of nature when they grow up.”

Jobson said it’s a playground designed to include all kids.

“It’s not just the most physically fit kids or the athletic kids that tend to do well on the jungle gyms, but the kids can have quiet time or do many kinds of play. It’s also good for the special needs kids,” Jobson said.

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle said Jobson’s donation will give thousands of students the chance to re-engage with the outdoors.

“I think a lot of kids today, they’re not as used to being outside, playing and being really creative and just having some free play compared to when I grew up and maybe some others. Students are really going to be able to tap into their imagination,” Weikle said.

It’s not just Colene Hoose Elementary kids that will have the chance to use the playgrounds. Weikle said other Unit 5 schools will possibly visit the playground on field trips, and during summer months and weekends, anyone from the community is welcome to play and explore on the new playground.

Adam Bienenstock said this is not only about creating a fun environment for kids now, but this is about teaching kids to care about the environment long term.

“If you don’t have any way of connecting to that when you’re young, how do you love it and look after it later? So, I’m hoping that they do this for another group of kids later,” Bienenstock said.

The construction is expected to be completed in the fall.

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