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Tom Sawyer Island at Amelia Earhart Park, North Hialeah, Fla.
An Adventure in Nature: Creating a Play-in-the-Woods Experience

Landscape Architecture by Karen Cheney, RLA, LEED, Miami-Dade Parks,
Recreation and Open Spaces

The 'Netplex' is a 14-post connected net climber with two concentric rings. Kids climb through four levels of centrally placed flexible discs--webbed nets with the latex-free rubber belting--set at opposing angles for added challenge but also allowing kids to rest on the way to the top.

During the 1970s the director for what was then the Metro-Dade Park and Recreation Department envisioned Amelia Earhart Park as an ideal location for a farm village where children could go to connect with nature and learn about animals. Nearby the farm village was a lake with a man-made island that the director wanted to turn into a "play-in-the- woods" experience.


The 'Smart Play: Motion 2-5' ADA-compliant, compact, freestanding play piece meets the technical specifications for ages 2-5, but was uniquely designed for kids ages 2-3 (maximum fall height of 32 inches). It packs in 16 interactive activities addressing developmentally-appropriate skills: inclined tunnel; leaf shape-and-fit; wiggle ladder; slide; sand play station with sifters and seats; shape-and-fit table; leaf trail; race car/roller track; numbers climber; ring-a-bell; marbles; bongo panel; bead panel; steering wheel; steppers and an alphabet panel. The decks are '5 GripX' textured. The decks, table tops, seats and activity components are made from a 73% post-consumer recycled plastic formulation called 'Permalene.'

An Island Adventure
The man-made island was designed as Tom Sawyer's Play Island, which is accessed via a pedestrian bridge from Amelia Earhart Park. Visitors are met with native cypress trees along the shoreline, boulders and oak trees further inland. Once the island was sculpted, a few pieces of playground equipment--climbers, swings and playground slides--were added.

After nearly 40 years of existence and a playground renovation in the late '90s, it came time for the county to update the play space with playground equipment that met new safety and accessibility standards. Karen Cheney, landscape architect at Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department, was assigned the project.


Mushroom steppers, a log balance beam, acorn seats and the 'Pointe' rock climber are all molded from glass fiber reinforced concrete. The rock climber has embedded plant and animal fossils.

A Repurposed Playground
"When I got started on this project, I knew that I wanted to keep the theme of nature play," explained Cheney. "I worked closely with Nikki Hall, my Landscape Structures playground designer, and Rep Services, Inc., our local playground consultants located in Lake Mary, Fla., to create a play space that would complement the surrounding environment and fit within the space and budget."

The playground design includes the net-based 'Netplex' playstructure that is linked to a more traditional 'PlayBooster' playstructure. The posts of both playground structures are custom printed to look like tree bark, and recycled wood-grain lumber panels. The 'Pointe Rock' rock climber adds to the nature-inspired play experience. Custom oak leaf balance boards, mushroom steppers and a log balance beam enhance the nature play theme and deliver challenge disguised as fun. Even more, 'Smart Play: Motion 2-5' provides age-appropriate adventures for young visitors so that entire families can spend hours exploring and playing on Tom Sawyer's Island.


The nature-inspired playground design blends in with the surrounding mature oak trees, boulders and existing natural landscape. "We had a few serendipitous conditions here--the existing boulders and beautiful trees," explained landscape architect Karen Cheney. "It all came together for a distinctive, repurposed playground."

Choosing the color scheme of the playground was at the forefront of the design work. Cheney and her team wanted to incorporate nature-inspired shades to tie the playground design story together. The color palette they chose was carefully curated to help stimulate the senses and perfectly coordinate with the surrounding landscape.

In addition to the play environment, Cheney worked to upgrade the surrounding land into more usable space. The grade separation was renovated to be a concrete gravity wall that she envisioned as a balance beam for children as well as a resting area for visitors. The floor of the nearby shelter was replaced while the original structure was untouched to keep the living roof of 'Resurrection' ferns (Polypodium polypodioides) intact. And to ensure that the mature oak trees wouldn't be harmed during the renovation, Cheney teamed up with an arborist.

"We had a few serendipitous conditions here--the existing boulders and beautiful trees," explained Cheney. "It all came together for a distinctive, repurposed playground."


The posts of the Netplex climber are custom printed to look like tree bark and recycled wood-grain lumber panels. Custom oak leaf balance boards enhance the 'nature play' theme and deliver challenge disguised as fun.

Going Beyond Accessibility
"There's a big difference between accessible and inclusive," noted Cheney. "Our goal was to make the playground at Tom Sawyer Island inclusive." To do so, Cheney and Nikki created at-grade experiences to bring kids of all abilities together.

"What I love about Netplex," said Cheney, "is that a child using a mobility device can get to it, and depending on their upper body strength, can participate in some of the climbing activities."

The playground design also delivers a multisensory experience to help kids of all abilities build various developmental skills. Plus, the landscape design--natural plant materials and boulders--engage the kids' visual, olfactory and tactile senses.


The railed deck that takes you to the slide gives kids the option of corkscrewing down to the ground.

A Prescription for Nature Deficit
The new playground design on Tom Sawyer Island at Amelia Earhart Park opened in February 2015 to rave reviews. According to Cheney, the playground is well-used and everyone is excited about the completed project. "The Island has become a real prominent feature once again. People come on weekends to spend the day at Amelia Earhart Park. The new playground equipment has given new life to the space."

"I've been designing playgrounds for a long time," Cheney explained. "Place making is all about recognizing the history of the space, and you build from there. We focused on making this about nature play because we recognize that our kids really do have a nature deficiency. We hope the new playground, along with our existing recreation programming, will instill a love of nature to a new generation."


The acorn seats are fun seating options. The precast concrete, hand painted 18" diameter seats have a steel support that puts the sitter 16.5" off the ground.


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October 17, 2019, 9:04 am PDT

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