'It's a palette': Colene Hoose natural playground now open to the public
Colene Hoose Elementary School’s natural playground has been years in the making, but as of Saturday, the wait to play is over. The park is finished and open to the public.
During the four-hour opening, kids and families trekked the gravel paths of the Ilse & Charlie Jobson Natural Play Park, exploring the wooden or stone creatures crafted for them.
This is what makes this park in Normal special. It’s devoid of the typical playground structures of the modern world.
“Most playgrounds today are pancake flat playgrounds with rubber surfacing in bright colors, and you know, equipment made of steel and plastic that has been taken from a catalog and put in rows,” said Helle Nebelong, the Danish architect who designed the natural play park.
There are traditional structures at the play park, like the swings, but even those have a wooden frame. Then there’s the mystical notes and designs, like the wooden mushroom pockets, the carved animals, and the interactive spaces like the sand pit.
Charlie Jobson, who funded the park, said this is how he wanted it to look.
“It's a palette where kids can create their own games and make up their own fantasies,” he said.
It’s also the only park like it in the United States. Jobson got the idea from his time in Europe, where these kinds of parks are more common.
Nebelong was selected for her expertise. She created a natural play park like this one in Copenhagen over two decades ago. Since then, she said it’s become the most popular playground around, adding she wanted the same for Bloomington-Normal.
“I also hope this playground will be the most popular playground so that children, they could be reconnected with nature,” she said.
Jobson said this was the idea behind the park. He’d like kids to tune out from the virtual world so many get wrapped up in today with video games, phones, and television, and remember the wonders of nature.
There’s also a mental health component that Jobson said benefits people in various ways. They can go to decompress, but they also can find connections.
“It's a place that's very centering,” he said, “the natural environment helps you realize you're not separate from other people.”
Karen Stephens, a retired Illinois State University professor, has studied nature's impact on children. She said the natural playground is the perfect place for children to go for relief.
She noted that there are endless opportunities for children within the park.
“If a child is feeling rowdy and needing to get energy off, there's plenty of spaces for that,” she said. “For those children who want to sit down and contemplate, there are really nice nooks under trees where they can sit and write in a journal, or they can color, or they can have talks with a friend or a teacher, a parent.”
Children who are struggling to express themselves can even talk to the trees, she added.
“I really do believe that some of those inanimate objects… will become very good listeners,” she said.
It’s Jobson’s hope that children can take the time to name the turtles or rabbits. This way, they can make the park their own.
Lily Beal, a fifth-grade Colene Hoose student, said she and her friends already have started doing this. Her mother, Laura Beal, said the family also enjoys the music section of the park, complete with functional wooden instruments, including xylophones.
Laural Beal said she’s already envisioning future play dates in the park.
“It's so large, I don't think you could get to the whole thing in one visit, so we look forward to lots of trips here,” she said.
‘A work of art’
Students at Colene Hoose were involved in the park’s construction as well. At a private opening on Friday for the school children, several students — including Beal — planted a tree. Before that, some got to help make the mosaic “river” that California-based artist Robin Brailsford brought to life.
Nebelong said it was her idea to include the students in the design process. Over a year ago, she sent the children the drawing prompt: “If I was a fish, I would look like this.”
“Every fish was different,” she said.
Some of those fish are present in Brailsford’s mosaic, who said there were all types of interests represented — from sports teams and robots, and even individual moments portrayed, such as fishing with a family.
“These are not scientific fish,” she said. “These are absolutely expressions of who the children are.”
Lily Beal said her fish was one of the ones in the river, which is why it’s her favorite part of the park.
“I don't know what I was thinking in third grade, but I made it because I liked how the colors went together and the bright yellow tail,” she said.
She named it Swish Fish.
Jobson said the park itself is “a work of art.”
An ‘iconic project’
There also will likely never be another park quite like it. Even Nebelong’s other parks are differernt.
One reason is the construction. The pathways are lined by bricks from Chicago, a seating area has local stones, and there’s always the river, with each unique fish.
There are markers all around the park,too, indicating the types of trees that are present or were used to create that play space. Developer Adam Bienenstock, of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, said the park “brings them a full indigenous forest.”
“There are trees here that haven't lived in this area for the last 100 years, but are now starting again,” he said.
Through rainstorms, supply shortages, and the pandemic, Bienenstock carried tree stumps and gave the park life. It was a tough two years, but it all paid off on Saturday.
“Seeing people play…. seeing the kids smile, and seeing people from the community that went to the school 30 years ago come back out with a huge grin on their face to see how it’s transformed… I'm filled with gratitude,” he said.
The park also is meant to educate. Some of the structures, such as the gazebos throughout, can be used as outdoor classroom spaces on warm days.
Brailsford called it an “iconic project” and said it has changed her perspective on children’s parks.
“Every time I see another playground now that's just loaded with plastic and rubberized surfacing and, you know, just the most ordinary playground equipment it just sort of makes me cringe because they all should be like this park,” she said.
While open to the public when school is not in session, Nebelong emphasized the park is for the kids. When she spoke to them privately on Friday, she told them as much.
“It is your park now, enjoy,” she said.