A group of Western Illinois University-Quad Cities students recently put the finishing touches on a project that gave them class credit for working outdoors, creating something for kids, and improving a part of the Quad Cities community.
And perhaps even more interesting for nature-lovers: they did the entire thing with almost 100-percent natural materials.
“My classmates and I were taking a geographic information system (GIS) class last fall (2016), Site Planning, and we had to design something for our final project,” explained Maddie Kull, a senior recreation, park and tourism administration (RPTA) major from Morrison, IL. “It just so happened that around the same time, Nahant Marsh received a donation to create a natural play area for children who visit the marsh.”
Kull and the rest of the group members worked from the beginning of their class in the fall semester, and into the summer, to create an all-natural “playscape.”
“Nahant wanted an area that was safe and engaging which would spotlight the area’s natural landscape,” added Jennifer Swofford, an RPTA major from Coal Valley, IL. “The request fit perfectly with our class’s emphasis on wise land-use through inclusive community recreation and conservation.”
What’s That Word?
“We use the word “playscape” instead of “playground” because, rather than this being an area separate from its surroundings in what it offers, it blends the natural elements of the marsh into a space that encourages free play and imaginative interaction with the environment,” Swofford explained. “Many of us on the project have very fond memories of playing in nature as children, so this allowed us tap into our experiences in a fun and creative way.”
What’s That Stuff?
The all-natural playscape consists of
- a living fence made of different bushes all with edible fruits,
- a large balance beam,
- stepping stumps,
- a wikki-up, which is a Native American hut made up of brushwood or covered with mats (“We created ours with willow saplings from the marsh,” Kull explained),
- a loose play-area where children can play with cut-up pieces of small logs, and
- bird silhouettes kids on which kids measure their “wingspan”
But Didn’t They Have to Kill Some Nature to Make Something out of Nature?
“Most of the materials used to make this project were gathered here at the marsh,” said Jevonnah Prashaw, Nahant Marsh Education Center natural resources manager, who oversaw the construction. “They cut willows and used them to make the wikki, the stepping stones, and balance beam, and the loose play logs were all from trees here at the marsh that were taken down either because they were hazard trees or were non-native (a lot of it was mulberry, green ash, and boxelder). The ‘living border’ around the playscape is made of native shrubs, including aronia berry, hazelnut, serviceberry, and crab-apple.”
Prashaw noted the improvement that the playscape brings to the site. “It adds an enriching experience to the younger children that visit the marsh and gives them a chance to play with and experience natural materials in a safe learning environment,” she said.
Another fulfilling achievement from the project was working with RiverStone Group of Moline to secure a donation of crushed limestone to use as substrate, said Kull, who is also minoring in environmental studies.
“The best thing about this project for me was being part of it every step of the way,” Kull said. “I was there from the very beginning until the very end, and it’s wonderful seeing your ideas actually come to life!”
What RPTA Work Is All About, Inside and Outside the Classroom
“The class project was designed around wise land-use,” Swofford said. “There were so many things that I enjoyed both while in the class and while doing the project. The class is extremely helpful in focusing on all of the considerations that arise during park planning. Not only do you learn about the physical and technical aspects of planning through GIS, but you also incorporate the human and conservation side of planning that allows you better serve the community in a thoughtful and educated way.”
Swofford said she also enjoyed putting the classroom work into a collaborative, practical application.
“We worked as a team to create, work, and present our plan as would any company,” she said. “It was very helpful in shining a light on what we are able to do well and what considerations we should make in the future. Our professor, Rob Porter, did an excellent job of guiding us when necessary, but giving us enough freedom to experience the project from a professional point of view.”
Swofford reflected on what she’ll take away from the project overall.
“The greatest thing I learned from both the project and the class is that wise land use is really a balancing act wherein you must consider many different elements of planning,” she said. “Recreation is not always about what attracts the most people to an area, but how well both the community and environment is cared for when they do come. Effective planners have to take into account all aspects of a landscape and community to bring a service that will be both fun and functional, while being considerate of the surrounding environment.”
Even once the project was finished, Kull was happy to remain at the Marsh this summer as an intern doing animal care as an intern.
“We have a variety of reptiles and amphibians that call the education center their home,” she said. “I also work on the natural resource team, working on restoring prairie and making sure the marsh is a thriving healthy ecosystem. I’ve fallen too deeply in love with the animals and the marsh to leave!”