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Hatching Hawks Hollow

By Eric Hornig and Andy Howard, Hitchcock Design Group

About one acre of repurposed prairie at the Peck Farm campus in Geneva, Ill., became the home to Hawks Hollow Nature Playground, an interactive play area with a splash pad, net climbers, a wading stream, and eight learning stations that focus on native plants and wildlife.

Environmental learning is disguised as play at Hawks Hollow Nature Playground, where children are encouraged to use their imagination and experience the smells, textures and wonders of the natural world. Situated within the well-established Peck Farm campus in Geneva, Ill., the playground complements the Geneva Park District's ongoing mission to create a bond between children and the surrounding natural world. The 385-acre Peck Farm site is already home to established programming, which includes a recreation center, athletic fields and an interpretive center that offers visitors hands-on interaction with nature and the site's history as a functioning sheep farm. This campus boasts a well-known trail network that visitors use for hiking and exploring the pristine prairie environment.

Beyond the entry plaza, the Wing Span Wanderer trail includes bird footprints in the paving of the walkway that leads to garden areas. Life-sized wingspans of these birds are also posted and compared with human "wingspans" to provide context.

In an effort to further expand the programming and educational offerings available to visitors, the park district worked with Hitchcock Design Group and local stakeholders to create a nature playground that would provide children with traditional active play experiences, as well as educate and connect them with nature in a variety of ways. The bird themed play space is designed to be engaging for unstructured drop-in visits, school group play and curriculum based education. Small-scale and intimate experiences were created throughout the playground, which allows children to gain an understanding and appreciation of nature, ultimately promoting an expanded look into the larger systems at Peck Farm.

Early in the design process, surrounding residents were invited to a workshop to discuss ideas for the playground. Two public community meetings and an open house were also hosted at the site to gather ideas and input from neighborhood children and families. This process provided insight into the types of amenities and programs the users wanted to see.

The Earthworm Escape Route log trace maze was made from repurposed trees and teaches children about the emerald ash borer, an invasive pest that has led to the removal of many ash trees in the area. Exhibits also show the various food sources for birds and other wildlife in and around Peck Farm.

Hitchcock Design Group prepared a master plan for a nature based play environment supporting the theme and mission of Peck Farm Park. This project consisted of a bird themed play environment aligned with the heavy bird habitat previously created on site, in conjunction with the restored prairie land. A site was selected on the northeast section of the property, adjacent to the historic Peck Farm homestead, for the new nature playground. The decision to locate the playground by the homestead was deliberate, as both assets seek to educate children and visitors about the beauty and complexity of the surrounding natural environment.

The pathway through the earthworm escape route includes plantings of Veronica spicata 'Royal Candles,' Coreopsis verticillata 'Zagreb,' Liatris spicata 'Kobold' and monarda 'Marshall's Delight.'

Constructed in collaboration with staff and contracted workers, Hawks Hollow nature playground features eight educational stations that create hands-on learning experiences for each child who visits. The education stations begin with the Feather Finder entry plaza, which is made up of decorative pavers, pre-cast panels, seat walls, signs and robust plantings. This area showcases different species of feathers and allows children to connect types of feathers to native birds. A rotating sign encourages children's curiosity and exploration by matching up and identifying different types of bird parts.

The Wing Span Wanderer trail follows the entry plaza, where children travel an established path with bird footprints imprinted in the paving of the walkway, leading to appropriate areas of the garden. Life-sized wingspans of these birds are also posted and compared with human "wingspans" to provide children with an understanding of their relation to nature.

Educational signage (Systeme Huntingdon) provides stylized images and information on the local birds that populate a habitat on another part of the Peck Farm site. The natural materials incorporated into the play structures blend so well with the existing site that red tail hawks and raptors use the high points of the play area as a perch.

Next, the Nature's Nest area allows children to role-play and walk into an oversized robin's nest, where nearby sticks allow them to add to the already established structure and build their own nest. At Kingfisher Crossing, a shallow stream with stepping-stones, log crossings and movable stone cobbles provides the opportunity for children to manipulate the flow of the stream adjacent to fish pavers and a splash pad. An old fashioned water pump and a mud wall also invite children to create their own masterpieces with a mud palette and fence canvas. Log seating surrounded by wood instruments at the Song Bird stage creates an orchestra pit that encourages children to make music cooperatively or act out their own performance. Children can tweet, chirp or call out birdcalls to each other as they learn to identify and sing birdcalls together. Situated amongst the trees in the wooden Raptor's Roost play structure, children observe panoramic views of flora and fauna in their natural habitat. This multiple level learning feature contains the Falconer's Message pulley system, which encourages cooperative play with native fruits and seeds. The Roost, complete with an owl adornment, also allows children to understand the importance of the raptor's dominant position in the bird family.

At Kingfisher Crossing, a hand-powered water pump and "mud wall" invites children to paint and splatter their own designs onto a fence canvas (Trex Decking).

Food source education exhibits show the different food sources for birds and other wildlife at Peck Farm at the Earthworm Escape Route. The log trace maze was made from repurposed trees that had been located on site, and teach children about the emerald ash borer and why many ash trees are being cut down. Finally, at the sheep-herding maze, children connect with the history of the Peck Farm site by "herding" their sheep through balance logs and into the barn.

At the Insect Seek and Find, children can look for and identify crawling creatures that make their homes among plantings of 'Marshall's Delight' bee balm, 'Zagreb' threadleaf coreopsis, and 'Royal Candles' speedwell.

Materials & Awards
Materials that were natural, recycled, and repurposed were selected to support the park district's goal of creating a place that connected children with nature and educated them about the history of Peck Farm. Natural materials like western red cedar decking and guardrails were installed for the ADA accessible boardwalk and Raptor's Roost. The rounded posts and wood branch roof on the Hawk's Perch blend with the natural character of the site so well that red tail hawks and raptors use the high point for a perch.

Tree branches and cuttings from trees that were on site were used to create the beaver lodge and bird nest play areas, and branches were woven into the boardwalk guardrail panels to make railings.

The upper tier of the Raptor's Roost structure can be reached via ramp for ADA accessibility. The structure includes traditional play features like slides and climbing elements in addition to the educational components.

Animal and bird tracks were imprinted into the concrete to teach children how to identify local bird species. Tree trunks cut from trees lost to the emerald ash borer on the site were repurposed for the Sheep Maze balance logs, the barn, log benches, log wall and trace maze. These not only made good use of waste material and matched the setting, they provided opportunities to learn about tree health, insect life, and urban forestry practices.

The Hawks Hollow nature playground at Peck Farm Park educates children about their connection to nature, and engages all of their senses by inviting them to manipulate, explore, touch, climb and play while learning about nature. Children are provided with a wide variety of learning opportunities that all demonstrate the important link between nature, animals and humans.

Children are invited to play in a human-scale robin habitat in the Nature's Nest area, where nearby sticks allow them to add to the established nest and build their own structure. Plantings of creeping lilyturf, 'Autumn Magic' black chokeberry and 'Alpenglow' bloody cranesbill surround the nest and provide a natural setting for the unnaturally large nest.

The creative use of natural materials such as wood logs for seating, actual birds nest materials for the construction of the nests and mud to allow children to express their creativity while learning through play help to make Hawks Hollow the unique context-rich destination for all ages.

The master plan, design and bid phase of the project required about 11 months, which were spread between February 2011 and February 2013. Construction took five months, from April 2013 through September 2013. After opening to an enthusiastic public in October 2013, the Illinois Park and Recreation Association honored the Hawks Hollow playground with an Outstanding Facility and Parks Award in January 2014.

The splash pad is run on a seasonal basis, and is a popular stop for children that get overexcited at the mud wall. The water feature includes seven single-nozzle water jets and one eight-nozzle jet for active play.

Project Team
Owner/Client: Geneva Park District
Aquascape, Inc.; Clauss Brothers; LJ Morse Construction;
Pat White Construction; Utility Dynamics
Electrical Engineer: Nova Engineering
Grant Application Assembly: CH Schroeder and Associates
Landscape Architect: Hitchcock Design Group
Structural Engineer: McCluskey Engineering

About 650 feet of western red cedar was installed on site, including the bridge that crosses the Kingfisher stream. The design team and park district were focused on using natural materials to enhance the habitat aesthetic of the play area.

Boardwalk & Roost Tower Decking, Guardrail, Worm Arbor: Western Red Cedar
Cast In Place Colored Concrete: Soil Horizon Wall
Interpretative Signage: Systeme Huntingdon, Inc.
Mud Fence and Trays: Trex Composite Decking
Limestone Veneer: Halquist Stone
Musical Fence, Bass Drum, Wood Xylophone, & Tongue Drum: Natural Playgrounds Store
Net Tunnel, Net Funnel & Access Net: Berliner, Parkreation (supplier)
Precast Concrete Panels: Architectural Cast Stone
Spiral Slide: Gametime, Cunningham Recreation
Splash Pad: Waterplay
Spotting Scopes: Landscape Structures, NuToys Leisure Products (supplier)
Unit Pavers: Unilock, Old Greenwich Cobble

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August 24, 2019, 10:47 pm PDT

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