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The Poe Center: Health, Fun & Learning in One Package

By Brian Starkey, OBS landscape architects

Scaling the rib cage is one way to reach the top platform of the tree house. Integrating learning with play features is the heart of the park's design philosophy. Photos courtesy of OBS landscape architects.

PlayWELL Park at the Alice Aycock Poe Center extends the lessons of the center's learning laboratories into an engaging and active outdoor play environment. Research shows that integrating learning and play is more effective than classroom instruction alone. In this case, linking play to health lessons seems uniquely appropriate. The design team is confident that the playground is succeeding in its goal of reinforcing the information kids need to make healthy choices.

The Alice Aycock Poe Center, in Raleigh, N.C., is a nonprofit organization focused on the health needs of North Carolina's children. Over 40,000 children from all over the state visit the center annually, where they learn how to make healthier life choices. The center teaches children about the dangers of too much exposure to the sun, the risk of an unhealthy diet, alcohol and tobacco use, the requirements of good dental hygiene and the importance of staying active.

The tongue slide was an idea generated in the children's design charette. The generous landing area also serves as a gathering area for groups which can sit in a circle around an instructor.

The park opened in June 2004, offering children and their families the chance to engage in physical activities while learning to make better choices. Recent media stories have focused on what might be called an obesity epidemic among today's children, a trend that underlines the importance of special play area like the Poe Center's.

The design details of PlayWELL Park emerged an interactive process utilizing the imagination of children and the input of a team with experience in health education. Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco of the Natural Learning Initiative led interactive sessions with the center staff to understand the mission of the center, the information provided to children in the learning labs and potential applications in the park.

Children check their pulse after following some active play. The solar driven pulse chimes--there are three of them throughout the park--measure and display digitally heart rate. Chimes sound as the pulse reading is taken.

Others who participated in the design and planning process included representatives from the Wake County Public School system, North Carolina Smart Start, the City of Raleigh and the North Carolina Pediatric Association.

Over the course of a weekend children from the ages of six to 14 were invited into the design process. Working, in groups, the children generated and illustrated play ideas for the park. At the completion of sessions the children presented their ideas. Many of the kids' ideas--such as sliding down a tongue, moving through arteries, climbing a skeleton and navigating a maze were incorporated into the final design.

The Shade Cap provides a shaded place to sit or gather. The Shade Cap and adjacent Sunglasses carry messages about the importance of sun protection for UV exposure.

Brian Starkey, principal at OBS landscape architects describes his company's role as "one of molding the children's ideas into experiences arranged on the site to create a continuous and active educational play adventure."

PlayWELL Park links fun with good health habits. The 1.5-acre park features play features that are custom-designed to teach important lessons on physical activity, fitness, safety and nutrition.

The tree house has many play experiences attached to it as well as health information on circulation and the nervous system. The solar panel at center runs a heartbeat monitor provided for visitors.

To traverse the NutriClimb Breakfast Wall or negotiate the Healthy Choices Maze one must make healthy food choices. The climbing wall is equipped with hand and footholds sized according to nutritional values. Try to make it across by grabbing the smallest (fats and sugars) is nearly impossible.

By making the correct choices on a variety of health issues children will make it through the Healthy Choices Maze, and are rewarded with access to raised platforms which allow views across the park. The maze is created out of chain link fence with signage asking children to make a choice and decide their direction. Whether to eat a banana or a donut for breakfast or whether or not to wear a bike helmet are choices we make everyday and the children need to make the right ones to get through the maze.

The Healthy Choices Maze presents many choices for the children. Those who make the healthy and safe choices are successful in finding their way through the maze. They are also rewarded with access to viewing platforms from which they can look out over the maze and the rest of the park.

The central Activity Tree House features bones and nerves to climb and arteries to slide through. In one artery, the child slides freely and unobstructed. In the other, a clogged artery, the experience is not so smooth and easy. Signage panels incorporated into the tree house provide valuable health information.

Children also balance on a 60-foot-long skeleton created out of balance beams or travel a zip line on a play exhibit with the playful name In One Ear and Out the Other. The whimsical Sun Shelter Cap angling out of the ground with nearby sunglasses provides escape from the afternoon sun and hard-to-miss message about sun protection.

Traversing the NutriClimb Wall requires participants to make healthy nutritional choices. The hand and footholds representing healthy foods are larger and make it easier to climb from one side of the wall to the other.

Three Pulse Chimes distributed throughout the park measure an individual's pulse and display his or her heart rate digitally--and through the sound of chimes. The solar-powered devices offer the opportunity to test one's heart rate before and after exercise and play.

The Tongue Slide comes straight from the children's design sessions. There's not much of message here, other than stay active and have fun. But then again, that simple message is what healthy living is all about!

The play pieces throughout the park were the creation of Filament Studios in Boston, Mass. and were turned into reality by Design Dimensions of Raleigh. Working in collaboration with OBS, Filament created the pieces using a combination of parts found in playground equipment catalogues and specially-fabricated forms and elements.

Arms and legs working together at the exhibit known as the pedal pushers stresses the importance of being active. The shredded bark surface here is soft and helps visitors avoid mud after rainy periods.

OBS landscape architects adapted and arranged these pieces across the park, creating separate but connected environments. These environments are created through the manipulation of the landforms, vegetation and access.

Sixty feet from head to toe, this skeleton, composed of balance beams, offer visitors a chance to test their balancing skills and provides messages on strong bones and nutrition.

In addition, the playground was designed to be accessible to children with disabilities. The entrance to the playground is connected to the building's entrance through the use of a serpentine modular retaining wall that leads children from one feature to another. As the children move to and from the park they are guided by the wall.

The zip line dubbed, "In one ear and out the other" provides an active and physically challenging experience.

The project site was a former vacant lot that was lacking vegetation--except for one edge where several large pine trees were saved to create shade. As built, the design team opted for mostly native trees and shrubs to eliminate the need for an irrigation system. Plantings give individual character to various sites within the park. Site construction and landscape installation was completed by Covington Landscapes Inc.

Children participate in the generation of ideas for the park. Ideas for many of the exhibits and play features in the park were created by children during an interactive design charette. Ideas and drawings were presented by the children at the conclusion of the charette.

The hope of all involved is that PlayWELL Park will be an important tool in fighting the obesity epidemic faced by the children of North Carolina. It is intended to empower children and their families with knowledge and decision-making skills that will help them live healthier lives. Given the nationwide trend towards sugar and inactivity, the PlayWELL project may offer a blueprint for other communities as well.

An Obesity Epidemic

Government statistics show that American children are among the biggest in the world--and getting bigger. Landscape designers can play a role in making exercise convenient, fun and educational.

Results from the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicate that an estimated 16 percent of children and adolescents ages 6-19 years are overweight. As shown here, this represents a 45 percent increase from the overweight estimates of 11 percent obtained in 1988-94.
The federal government's Center for Disease Control offers a web page with design resources, "Designing & Building Healthy Places." The address is

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December 14, 2019, 8:04 am PDT

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