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'A new way of playing': Huge natural playground all but complete in Normal

The $5 million natural playground at Colene Hoose elementary school in Normal covers 16 acres and includes an amphitheater that can hold every child in the school.
Charlie Schlenker
The $5 million natural playground at Colene Hoose Elementary School in Normal covers 16 acres and includes an amphitheater that can hold every child in the school.

Bloomington-Normal's next big thing in playgrounds is all but complete — a $5 million, 16-acre natural playground at Colene Hoose Elementary School in Normal.

The installation planned by famous Danish designer Helle Nebelong has taken more than a year and a half to shape. Charlie Jobson gave the Unit 5 school district the money to create the massive installation. He is a hedge fund founder and investor who grew up in Normal and went to Hoose as a kid. Jobson said he treasures the education he got and wanted to give back.

Children at Colene Hoose school designed every fish in a mosaic river that flows through the new natural playground at the school
Children at Colene Hoose school designed every fish in a mosaic river that flows through the new natural playground at the school

“It makes me feel good to be able to do something for Colene Hoose. This playground is going to be a completely new way of playing and then, you know, another education for the children. It'll not only give them a sense of creating their own fun and play, but it will also improve outcomes in the classroom,” said Jobson.

Jobson has done education and environmental philanthropy before, but this is the first time he's commissioned something directly, rather than giving to organizations.

“I'd like to do more of these parks if there's support for it. I’d like to try (to) affect more kids positively through nature play,” said Jobson.

The alphabet maze in the natural playground at Colene Hoose school is child sized and helps kids learn their letters.
Charlie Schlenker
The alphabet maze in the natural playground at Colene Hoose school is child sized and helps kids learn their letters.

When he was a kid, Jobson said he ran around out of doors a lot. With online screen time and changing times, that freedom and ability to know the earth, he thinks, are things kids don't have so much today.

The Hoose school grounds used to be flat, almost painfully.

Adam Bienenstock runs the company that built the playground. He pointed out hillocks and swales during a walk-through.

“It was never perfectly flat if you go way back (before the school was built). It's sort of a nod to how rivers would flow. If you imagine the pathways as the rivers, that's how this is all molded," he said.

Bienenstock has built several thousand natural playgrounds, but only a few this large or involved. The scope of the park required moving 50,000 cubic yards of soil to create the topography.

“Sixteen acres is rare. Doing this with a public school is rare. Charlie Jobson coming in and investing this in a public school system is not normal. The National Parks might, on a good day, consider, with the right donor, spending this kind of money on a project of this scale,” said Bienenstock.

A natural playground integrates play spaces into the environment. There are at least 20 separate elements to this one, full of wonder and surprises. There's a mosaic river where fishes swim in solid stone. You don't see mosaics much in public anymore. They tend to fall apart in Midwestern freeze-thaw conditions.

Bienenstock said they used a patented process to make the tile patterns weather-resistant in one monolithic pour. California artist Robin Brailsford envisioned the river — with some help.

“The kids here designed every single fish in this river," said Bienenstock. "Their first drawing has been turned into these beautiful mosaic pieces and these mosaic fish and everyone contains a story from the kids at the school.”

Beyond the fishy river, on the west side of the school, there's a mound with a spiral path upward. At the top, you see the entire playground. There's also an alphabet maze.

“As you are a mall kid moving through this, there is a whimsy to it where you're searching for that next letter. You can write poems or sentences and then have them figure out how to go from letter to letter to make that sentence come together,” said Bienenstock.

The places to wander all have little touches people might not see, but children will get. At the center of the maze, there's a gazebo.

“Looking up you can see letters from underneath and the light shines through and the when the sun is at noon, it'll create the letters in a pattern as it shines through the gazebo. Every little detail has been carefully thought through; how do we add whimsy, how do we add playfulness to the space,” said Bienenstock.

More than 200 people worked on the playground — from contractors to artists to union members doing electric and masonry. Bienenstock said they all embraced craftsmanship and wanted to come back if anything was even slightly wrong.

“You know you've got a good crew when they are calling themselves out on problems before we do. It's been pretty cool to see that kind of pride the whole way through,” he said.

The attention to detail across the grounds is astonishing. The granite blocks in one space near the front of the school come from a specific quarry in Illinois that Bienenstock said has three colors of stones in it: a tan, a gray and a burgundy. He said most builders would want the stone to be the same.

“We wanted all of that mix to sort of blend it all together. You can see all the materials colors are subtly matching. There's a burgundy stone and right beside it is a burgundy boulder that picks up on those tones. There's a lot of artistry from the team that went into thinking through every single stone that went in,” said Bienenstock.

And all of it is environmentally friendly. The pathways are made of decomposed granite with a binder in it. Bienenstock said it's porous so rain filters through.

“There is no storm drainage on this site anywhere. This does not hook up to storm water," he said. "We take care of all of the water on this site. The climate matters to us. Connection to nature can't just be an aesthetic, it has to actually have that deeper meaning.”

Charlie Schlenker

Cobblestones around the edge of the installation are salvaged from cobbles once part of the streets of Chicago. Bienenstock said boulders they used were rolled and dropped by glaciers in central Illinois before being brought back to the site. Workers removed no soil as they sculpted the landscape. They made the rippling topography and made it ADA accessible without crossing that line.

That restraint, Bienenstock said, saves on fuel, though that's not the only reason to do it that way.

“Every single piece of how this was put together was equally important to Charlie Jobson, the funder, and to all of us, that it actually continues to have that story line of climate change being taken care of being thought of, how do we become more resilient? How do we teach those lessons to the next generation of kids?” said Bienenstock.

There are 140 trees and an arboretum filled with every tree species in Illinois. Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle said the playground won't just be for students at Colene Hoose, but for the entire community.

“We can imagine maybe some sort of field day or exploring day for other schools to come here and access the space," she said. "During the summer, during breaks, I can certainly see the Parks and Recreation Department, maybe the Children's Museum wanting to host activities and events here.”

Weikle said the natural space will set a new standard for parks in the Bloomington-Normal community.

Finishing touches remain to be done next spring — some small plantings, and the paths will be coated and hardened.

With 20 different elements on the grounds, there will be favorites.

“On the east side of the school, there's a spider web. There's a beaver lodge. Kids are going to have a lot of fun climbing and exploring and using their imagination," said Weikle.

Adam Bienenstock can't pick just one.

“Oh, that's so hard. My favorite element? I'm gonna split. It's the little forest area in the far side around the mushrooms that if I was a little kid I would be hiding in, amongst and underneath these carved wooden mushrooms. And the amphitheater where everyone in the whole school can actually come out. I'm torn,” said Bienenstock.

For philanthropist Charlie Jobson, the favorite part is what started it all — a return to nature.

“One thing I put in the park was the natural prairie planting. That was something I really wanted to get the kids in touch with,” he said.

Jobson said, though, what's really important is that the children who go there will find their own favorite places.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.