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Building A Galaxy In Grove City

By Karen Stretch, regional editor

Five, 14-foot tall sun structures were created by Tork Inc., an Ohio-based art design company using steel, aluminum and resin to provide shelter and relief from the heat. Photos courtesy of Bradley Kissling, MSI Design

The Milky Way: Home to our sun, our solar system, and us - the human race. It is estimated that the Milky Way is about 10 billion years old; that's a long time in the making! For MSI Design, recreating the solar system in Grove City, Ohio proved to me a much quicker job. Granted, reproducing it in the form of a playground helped speed up the process considerably.

Small Town Feel on the Third Planet From the Sun

Grove City is one of the fastest growing communities within Franklin County with a population of just over 31,000 living within the 14 square miles that make up the city. They have devoted more than 400 acres of their land to public parks - 16 city parks to be exact, with Discovery Frontier being the newest addition to the bunch. Despite their rapid expansion, they have managed to preserve a "small town feel."

Colorado design company, Free Notes, created large, colorful bells, chimes and drums for the Venus music garden to allow children of all abilities to express themselves musically.

"I still feel Grove City has been able to maintain the 'small town feel' for our residents," said Kim Conrad, Parks and Recreation Director of Grove City for the past 16 years. "The people of this community are friendly, neighborly and care about each other."

MSI Design took this sense of camaraderie and community into consideration when designing Discovery Frontier. After consulting with local schools for the blind and deaf, as well as physical therapists for autistic children; MSI recognized that children with special needs can be integrated into the design of a playground and influence the selection of materials used in construction.

Designers from MSI Design found this purple sand from a local stone company. The color is baked into the sand and will not run or stain. Tulip trees form a 290-foot diameter ring around the perimeter of the playground.

Planning for the project began in June 2003. Brad Kissling, project designer for MSI Design, with the help of Tim Schmalenberger, ASLA, also of MSI Design, had a hand in nearly every aspect of the playground. The idea for a solar system theme occurred to Kissling during a community meeting held to discuss the project. A 10-year-old autistic boy named Kevin had come to the meeting with a parent to share their ideas. Kissling noticed Kevin was holding a magazine about the solar system and thought it would be a perfect theme.

Kissling went above and beyond in his research for the playground. He contacted Kevin's therapist who invited him to observe the physical therapy equipment used in treating autistic children. MSI collaborated with Architectural Concrete Systems, Inc. to design and fabricate custom play pieces that mimic the activities used by therapists. Playground equipment manufacturer Kompan provided additional equipment, including a piece of equipment from Kompan's appropriately named "galaxy" line that had never been used before. This group effort gave the firms a double-role as both contractor and member of the design team.

The designers wanted to create a place where children of varying abilities could play together. They used a lot of color to appeal to the deaf; a music garden and plaques written in brail with raised molds of the planets indicating their size in relation to one another for the blind; rocking equipment, angled banks to lay on, as well as small, private spaces for autistic children.

The Lay of the Land

Discovery Frontier is not just a visually appealing place for children to play; it is a place for them to learn about the solar system and the city they call home. Plaque markers with information about the planets dot the 230-foot radius of the playground. There are spaces for classes to take part in group lessons focused on orbit and motion. Walls representing sunbeams have imbedded marbles, minerals and fossils in exposed veins. A 634-foot timeline (1,251 linear feet) weaves through the playground along the ground. Twenty-seven engravings along the timeline notes significant dates in the history of discovery and what was going on in Grove City at that time. The concrete walkway is stamped with two different textures and five different color mixtures. Native leaf and animal prints surround the Grove City historical dates and black marbles surround the dates in discovery. According to Kissling, future construction plans for Discovery Frontier include an extension of the timeline by 475 linear feet in order to connect the playground with the adjacent Grove City Century Village-an historic learning center.

Children and parents play together on the 36-foot diameter moon station, whose surface is made up of a rubberized material. Crater tunnels in the moon lead to an 11-foot high underground room.

The central feature of the playground is a 50-foot diameter resin and powder-coated sun sculpture. Tork Inc., an Ohio-based art design company specializing in sculpture and metal work, provided five, 14-foot tall sun structures made from steel, aluminum and resin to provide shelter and relief from the heat of the real sun.

Each section of the park features a different planet and a different play experience. Walkways following imaginary orbit paths connect the planets. The Earth's moon is a 36 foot diameter rubberized dome, with crater tunnels giving children access to an under cover room that is 11 feet in diameter and 4 feet high (the tunnels slope downward so that the room is the same height as the total structure). An alien space ship handrail made of steel was fabricated by a local company, Pinnacle Metal Products, and sits atop the moon along with two ADA accessible viewing telescopes attached to the moon inside of the railing, providing children and parents views of the rolling green hills surrounding the park.

A custom designed climbing wall made of red concrete and stones makes up the planet Mars. The 4-foot tall wall grows to 7 feet tall at the highest point and wraps around an interior route, allowing every child access to the top. The accessible walkway circling the inside of the wall is elevated 3 feet and has viewing holes or "craters" for children to peer out of.

The Venus Music Garden is made up of large, brightly colored bells, chimes and drums for children to play. The instruments were created by a group of designers from Colorado called Free Notes, which custom designs and builds indoor and outdoor instruments.

A favorite feature among the children who come to play at the park is the Mercury sand. Instead of the standard white sand commonly found in parks and playgrounds, Kissling decided at the last minute (the day before the opening of the playground on July 14, 2005.) to use vibrant, purple sand he had spotted at a local stone company. Parents were reassured at the opening of the playground that their children would not be permanently stained purple. The color is baked into the sand and although the sand may stick to the skin in humid weather, the color will not run or stain.

Sticky purple sand aside, Grove City residents have received their new park quite warmly.

Children make their way up the 7-foot-tall, custom-designed "Mars" climbing wall made up of red concrete and stone at Discovery Frontier, a solar-system themed playground in Grove City, Ohio.

"I have tried to visit the park at all times of the day and evening to get a feel for resident response," said Conrad. "My impression is that the users are really quite enjoying the uniqueness of this play area. The other response I have noticed is that the parents (and other adults) are more involved with their children. The whole family is enjoying the experience."

Rather than placing traditional park benches through the playground, designers incorporated seating into the landscape by using seating walls, which were painted to look like the surface of planets and the Saturn seawall, which is painted with a multicolored swirl finish.

A 290-foot diameter ring of tulip trees surrounds the perimeter of the playground. Zelkova trees form a ring in the center of the grounds while ginko, plum, and golden rain trees provide shade and added visual interest to the landscape. Woodfiber mulch, rubberized surfacing of varying depths, and sand make up the remaining surfaces of the playground.

"I am really proud of how it turned out," said Kissling. "I think it is a unique, one-of-a-kind playground. I've never seen one with a theme so incorporated."

The master plan of the Discovery Frontier playground located within Freyer Park in Grove City, Ohio, shows the layout of the playground that from the time of its inception to the grand opening, took two years of research and planning. Designers plan to add a splash pad and healing garden to the playground in the future.

The Future of the Man-Made Universe

Even with the multitude of activities already available for the children at Discover Frontier, designers have plans to construct a Jupiter splash pad featuring water rings which will create a tunnel of water (large enough for a wheelchair to go under), ground geysers, and spray jets. A Pluto space shelter overhead will be constructed for picnics and parties as well as a healing garden and shelter.

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December 10, 2019, 7:13 pm PDT

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