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The Grove at Wildwood Community Park
The Nature of Play

Landscape Architect and Lead Designer: Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) Landscape Architects
Project Lead, Providing Civil, Structural, Architectural,
Survey and Construction Phase Services: Oates Associates, Inc.


At Wildwood Community Park in Wildwood, Missouri, the natural environment around the play area inspired the design. Wooden elements and green and brown color schemes complement the area trees. Inclusiveness was important to the designers and area residents. The playground was carefully planned to promote play and interaction between children of all ages and abilities. More than half of the play activities are accessible via wheelchair. Little Tikes manufactured all of the prefabricated equipment, and No Fault Surfacing provided the poured-in-place surfacing.
Photo: Schanuel Photography



The ADA walkway is constructed of clear cedar and composite planks and is called the "Snake Walk." To highlight its importance and provide opportunities for children of all abilities to interact, play opportunities are incorporated along the walkway, such as musical elements and climbing nets. A pergola along the walkway serves as a seating area and a lookout to Bonhomme Creek.
Photos: Schanuel Photography.

The Grove, a seven-acre all-inclusive "natural play" playground and the first phase of the planned 66-acre Wildwood Community Park in Wildwood, Missouri, is a direct reflection of the community's residents and leadership, who believe that children need to explore nature, even if that means getting their clothes wet and their hands dirty.

Wildwood is a city of 35,000 people in west St. Louis County, incorporated in 1995. In 2007, the city surveyed residents to gauge their interest in land purchase for a community park. The more than 1,000 residents who responded showed a strong preference for open space and parks over indoor recreation centers, since nearby indoor facilities and sports complexes were already in place. They valued trails, stocked fishing lakes, natural amphitheaters, and open play lawns over baseball fields and skateboard parks.

As the city finalized the parkland purchase in 2010, they engaged Oates Associates and a team of consultants from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and SSC Engineering to create a conceptual master plan for the park. Oates subsequently provided architectural, civil engineering, structural engineering, survey and construction phase services for the first phase of park development: "The Grove."

Oates conducted expanded public participation meetings and confirmed that residents wanted a place with trails for exercise and dog walking, as well as opportunities to quietly observe and enjoy nature. For their children, residents preferred natural playgrounds and open play lawn areas over manufactured play pieces and sport facilities, and they wanted those play spaces to be all-inclusive and inviting to children with disabilities.



A rotating net provides opportunities for active children to climb and spin while a special needs child can enjoy spinning and being with the other children on the ground level saucer. Little Tikes created a 'wobblesphere', which is a rotating capsule, in order to provide exciting play opportunities for all while also providing an enclosed space for autistic children to decompress in.
Photos: Schanuel Photography & Oates Associates


Tree stumps arranged in a circle serve as a gathering spot for children of all abilities to sit and socialize. Large rocks enclose the area and are there for kids to climb on and play. The area also features a natural wood balance beam.
Photo: Oates Associates.

Based on that input, NBW collaborated with Oates Associates to design The Grove as an active natural play space for children of all abilities, with passive amenities that allow visitors to enjoy and reflect upon the natural environment. The Grove retains the topography and many of the natural elements of the land.

The Grove phase of Wildwood Community Park is a safe place for play and walking, while engaging children and adults in the beautiful chaos of nature.

The "natural play" playground at The Grove blends modern playground equipment with natural pieces. The playground sits among the trees at the edge of a wooded area and blends with the natural surroundings. Natural play elements - many accessible to children of all abilities - include rock walls and ledges, a teepee, log posts and piles, climbing structures, playhouse, rope spider web, swings, boardwalks, a 20-foot tall slide tower, and a tree-themed explorer's path. Just beyond the playground, a gravel path leads to a creek.

More than half of the play activities are accessible via wheelchair. Playground elements are also designed to provide numerous opportunities for children of all abilities to interact and play. For example, an ADA walkway leads up to the 20-foot slide on the 2.5 story wooden Tower and Snake Walk, with play opportunities such as musical elements and climbing nets along the walkway.

Along with the all-inclusive natural playground, The Grove also includes a pavilion, a new road, parking areas, bioswales, trails, an exercise area, picnic areas, gardens, a creek crossing, and a dog park. The Grove Pavilion is a large open-air wood structure designed to hold large events and provide restroom facilities for all park users. It features a solar panel, hanging pendant lighting, grills, and seating. The pavilion fits into the surroundings while achieving visual interest within the core park play area. It overlooks the woods and has an open lawn with landscaped areas for leisure and scenic views in all directions.




Themed teepees made of metal painted with a durable powder coat finish are accessed via various climbing structures, are connected by a bridge and have a slide leading down to the rubberized surface. Elevated tree houses are accessed via rope nets with log climbing structures nearby. A ground level miniature A-frame cabin serves as refuge and a playhouse for children.
Photos: Schanuel Photography.

Parkway Drive is a new road with an adjacent trail that leads into the park. A three-sided box culvert serves as a multi-use path crossing from the parking lot and provides a vantage point over Bonhomme Creek.

The dog park, which was designed around specimen trees, is located in a shady woodland area and offers canine agility elements.

Sustainable features were incorporated into the project, such as bioswales that allow stormwater runoff to percolate into the ground and recharge underground water sources. The bioswales also incorporate boardwalk structures to provide access for the public to enjoy the natural planting beds. Trees that were removed during clearing were recycled into mulch for surfacing in the playground and dog park.

What is a natural play playground?
According to Oates Associates project manager of Wildwood Community Park Tom Cissell, a natural play playground is a space intentionally designed to integrate nature into both structured and unstructured play and learning. Though many playgrounds use modern equipment that replicates nature, synthetic pieces alone cannot play the same role as nature.

Our mission is to "connect people to places," said Cissell. "We applaud communities that consider developing natural play areas to connect children to nature. Wonderful natural play elements can be added to any playground budget. Sometimes, it's as simple as working around an existing natural feature instead of removing it."


The Tower is 2.5-stories tall with a 20'-tall slide. To make the slide accessible to all users, a winding ADA compliant walkway leads up to it.
Photo: Schanuel Photography.

Natural play encourages children to explore and take managed risks, which helps them learn good judgment. Natural play spaces also foster social interaction. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv says that children and parents who live in places with outdoor access have twice as many friends as those with restricted access to the outdoors.

Natural spaces and materials also stimulate a child's limitless imagination, inspiring creativity and full use of their senses. Natural elements such as rocks, logs, hiding places, varying terrain, water, digging areas, gardens, and "loose parts" such as open-ended toys encourage children to imagine and explore.

To create the natural play space at The Grove, Oates Associates and NBW embraced the terrain, working with the hills rather than flattening them. They also embraced the existing trees, rather than clearing and replacing them with new specimens. Natural elements were utilized for paths and climbing structures, since children love to play on rocks, balance on logs, and skip on stumps.

"A ladder has one way to the top," said Cissell. "A real rock climbing ledge has dozens of ways to the top."

The city will continue to develop the $10 million Wildwood Community Park in phases over the next five to ten years as funding allows. Phase 2 construction, which includes a roadway extension and trails, is currently underway. Funding comes from a half-cent capital improvement sales tax revenue and potential grants.

As seen in LASN magazine, September 2016.

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October 13, 2019, 6:42 pm PDT

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