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Discovery Playground

By Carol Henry, RLA, ASLA, President, Design Concepts
Stephen Kelly, editor

The diversity and variety of playground elements (at least 32 by our count) at the inclusive Discovery Playground in Spokane Valley, Wash. is particularly impressive. Talk about engaging children... and adults. The playground opened in May 2010.
Cost of Wisconsin
Playworld Came America
Playworld Came America

Can a playground provide fun physical, sensory, and learning experiences for people of all ages and physical and developmental abilities? Folks in the city of Spokane Valley, Washington are finding that Discovery Playground, the region's first all-inclusive destination playground, is doing just that.

The 1.5-acre $1.6 million Discovery Playground was designed to be inclusive and accessible for people with a wide range of physical and developmental abilities. In the few months since it opened in May 2010, it has become an anchor for the park and a major attraction for the city, drawing hundreds of people daily to enjoy its creative custom features and wide variety of experiences.

Within the fossil maze and sensory gardens is the walk back through time depicting five classes of life (arthropods, dinosaurs, cephalopods, plants, mammals) within colored paving nodes.

Genesis of the Playground Design
Following a national proposal process, the city of Spokane Valley in March 2008 selected Design Concepts CLA Inc., an award-winning community and landscape architecture firm in Lafayette, Colo., to design a playground, in partnership with ecoPlan & Design, of Wenatchee, Wash. The playground is at the south end of Mirabeau Point Park, developed 10 years ago prior to Spokane Valley's incorporation as a city by Mirabeau Point, Inc., a nonprofit corporation. The playground was a key part of the vision for this multi-use community-centered park.

The playground design had to achieve multiple goals. The primary one was a destination playground for Spokane Valley that would be used by a broad spectrum of people. The project needed a variety of physical and cognitive challenges, interest for all age groups, a strong educational component, plus meaning to the community. The playground needed to be accessible to kids with physical and developmental handicaps and allow for fully integrated activities, so that everyone could play, socialize and learn side by side. The playground needed imaginative and entertaining opportunities for improving cognitive and motor play skills, but also provide for large groups to gather, explore and learn. Beacause the park is located next to a city recreation center, a senior center, close to a regional trail, the YMCA, a children's home and within walking distance of several schools, the playground had the potential for hundreds of users every day.

As kids enter the playground from across the bridge they can choose between three paths. Staying left, they are led under the colorful arches. Vines are planted at the base and will grow up over the arches over time.

Planning Begins
The firm held three community meetings to guide the design. The city had identified three potential sites in the park for the playground. At the first meeting with stakeholders in August 2008, the design team presented image boards for potential program elements, as well as opportunities and constraints plans for each of the three potential sites.

Local educators, health care professionals and members of the original Mirabeau Point, Inc. group were invited to the stakeholder's meetings. The stakeholders provided ideas on themes, programming and eliminated one of the three sites from consideration. At the second meeting, two plans were presented for each of the two remaining sites, and a distinct theme was developed for each plan. On the basis of comments from this meeting, a single site and theme were selected for development at a final public meeting and city council presentation. After incorporating feedback from the council, the public and the city the plan was approved for construction documentation.

The colorful custom sheet metal gateway (BMT Metal Fabrication) and playground entrance features animals, fish and bugs found throughout eastern Washington. The creatures are laser metal cut outs attached with countersink bolts.

Design Theme
The team designed the playground to focus on an "Exploring Eastern Washington" theme. The playground teaches regional geography and geology and features local plants, animals and fossils.

The "Palouse Prairie" rolling hills, a series of six sculpted and turf-covered mounds, represent wheat fields in Eastern Washington.

Near the entry gateway in shiny blue, red, purple and gold colors is a two-foot high, five-foot long steelhead trout (Playtime Creations) jumping from the water. Kids love to climb on it and the boulders, so, naturally, poured-in-place surfacing surrounds them.

A climbing wall of basalt reflects the region's geology.

A salmon wall shows the fish's lifecycle from ocean to spawning grounds.

The custom bear den (Playtime Creations) located next to the sand play area is fun for kids to explore, whether they're climbing the "rocks" or entering the lair to see how the world looks from the bear's den. As in all climbing and play equipment areas, there is cushioned, colorful poured-in-place safety surfacing.

Pavers along the discovery walkway display sandblasted motifs, such as the lifecycles of butterflies and frogs, as well as imprints of the kinds of fossils formed in the region millions of years ago when it was a seabed.

The playground layout accommodates many people at one time in a variety of different spaces and provides surprises in unusual places, with the idea of encouraging visitors to return to experience something new at each visit.

Behind the slide and climbing wall, children can view and interact with the eagle's nest and eggs.

The playground is rimmed on the north side by existing trees that screen the parking lot. A walkway circles within the playground and loops back in several places. The circulation allows for entering and exiting play areas in at least two places. There are no dead-ends.

The entry gateway draws people into the site, while plentiful seating opportunities, an outdoor classroom and a picnic plaza with a shelter provide places for school groups and others to gather.

Large, colorful metal flowers (Beechwood Metal Works) supplement the real nature in the planting bed. Paperbark maples (and an aspen) are background sentinels.

On the playground's south side is an elevated observation deck with a climbing wall and slide. In the center are two islands--one featuring sensory and herb gardens and a fossil maze, the other a discovery cove, garden house and secret garden with oversized objects like a chair and flower sculptures. Encircled and shaded by trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses, the secret garden provides a magical perspective on scale that recalls Alice in Wonderland.

Along the perimeter walkway and at the edges of the islands are activity nooks and other elements to explore.

The playground includes features designed for physical development, such as slides, swings, spinners and climbing elements. The bighorn sheep challenge steps offer one traditional set of steps with handrails and several other sets of steps with more challenging heights to help develop balance. The wavy walk circumnavigates the discovery cove with an undulating surface that offers challenge and thrills for toddlers on tricycles and children in wheelchairs.

When the earthmovers shaped berms for Discovery Playground the on site excavation unearthed hundreds of fieldstones that went to line the dry creek bed. The creek acts as a drainage area beneath the entry gateway bridge and is a buffer between the playground and parking lot.

The Palouse hills invites running up and down and rolling around.

Many elements encourage manipulation, including a large sand play area where people can play in the sand on three levels: at ground level with buried fossils to uncover, at a wheelchair-accessible sand table and in a raised bed, which allows parents and guardians to sit beside young children who are playing in the sand without becoming covered in sand themselves.

A water play area features an interactive splash pad with pop-up jets and columns with bubblers that spray water at unexpected intervals. The splash pad has fanciful colored concrete integrated into the design.

The playground also features activities designed for sensory development. Herb gardens filled with rosemary, thyme and mint invite visitors to touch and smell the plants.

The splash pad water spray features (Water Odyssey) incorporates three basalt columns sourced locally, colored concrete and water activator buttons. The musical chimes in the background are one the tree musical elements. You can also see 1 of 3 musical elements in the background.

Areas throughout the playground are covered in brightly colored rubberized surfaces to stimulate the sense of sight and, of course, to prevent injuries from falls.

Oversized wind chimes, spherical chimes and drums allow all age groups to explore sound and play together.

Discovery Playground has a few pieces of traditional play equipment, but many of the elements were custom designed and manufactured, giving it a distinctive, creative look. The design team worked with craftspeople to come up with atypical or unique features. Near the entry gateway is a two-foot high, five-foot long jumping trout in shiny blue, red, purple and gold colors that attracts young climbers.

Children like to crawl into the secret garden's huge pumpkin, or snuggle up to a life-size sculpture of a bear dozing in a cave.

An interactive sun clock, designed for the site's exact latitude and longitude, invites visitors to be a human gnomon (the triangular blade in the sundial) and tell the time by standing on the current month.

Looking down from the climbing wall, you see the jumping mat, the popular Supernova (the ring that spins from Kompan), the eagle flying from its nest and the glacier rock slide.

Site Challenges
The playground site in Mirabeau Point Park was flat, uninteresting, surrounded by roads and located at the end of a parking lot. To achieve a more defined, contoured and engaging landscape the plan called for a perimeter berm for a sense of enclosure and screening from the roads. Earthmovers shaped the berms from the soil excavated on site. The excavation turned up hundreds of fieldstones, which went to line the dry creek bed, which acts as a drainage area beneath the entry gateway bridge and is a buffer from the parking lot.

Plantings were added throughout the site for added shade and a feeling of enclosure. The resulting design completes the entry to the park and enlivens the once underused south end of the site.

The interactive sun clock was designed for the site's exact latitude and longitude. Where's the triangular blade doohickey (gnomon) that casts the shadow, you ask? By standing on the current month, the person becomes the gnomon.

Opening Day
City officials hoped Discovery Playground would become a regional draw, and they weren't disappointed. On opening day, people came from all over the area and the playground has had a steady stream of visitors since, says Mike Stone, Spokane Valley's parks and recreation director. It has been so popular the department has hired a playground attendant to oversee the fun.

The oversize objects in the secret garden recall Alice in Wonderland: the giant pumpkin, chair and frog on a lily pad. The arched entrance height is just right for children, but taller folks have to duck down. The rounded leaves of the Swedish columnar aspens flutter at the least whisper of wind. Snowcap dwarf Shasta daisy, red-leaf borage and dwarf Japanese spreading yew border the area.

About the Author and Design Concepts
Carol Henry, RLA, ASLA, president of Design Concepts, was the lead principal for Discovery Playground. She joined the firm in 1989, was appointed principal in 1998 and became managing partner in 2006. She focuses on parks and recreation planning, design for cities and towns, and planning and design for K-12 and college campuses. Design Concepts is a landscape architecture firm of 17 professionals in Lafayette, Colo. The firm's experience includes planning and design for parks, communities, and K-12 school and university campuses, as well as recreational master planning throughout the U.S.


Discovery Playground, Spokane Valley, Wash.

Owner: Michael Stone, CPRP
Director of Spokane Valley, Wash. Parks and Recreation

Design Team
Landscape Architects
o Design Concepts CLA, Inc., Lafayette, Colo.
o ecoPlan & Design, Wenatchee, Wash.

o DCI Engineers, Spokane, Wash.

General Contractor
o Ginno Construction, Inc., Coeur d' Alene, Idaho

Paver Contractors
o Ginno Construction
o Creative Surface Inspirations

Splash Pad
o Ginno Construction

Granite pavers are set in sod (fescue) for jumping and running. This area is also a great spot to have a picnic.

Benches, trash receptacles
o Wabash Valley

Bear Cave & Custom Steelhead Trout
o Playtime Creations

Colored Concrete
o Creative Surface Inspirations LLC

o MAC Industries, Dalton Gardens, Id.

Gateway, Custom
o BMT Metal Fabrication

o Lithonia Ligthing

Metal Art
o Beechwood Metal Works

Play Elements
o Climbing walls, slides: Monolithic Sculptures, Inc.
o Custom pieces: PLAYTIME
o Diggables: PlayWorld Systems
o Freenotes (musical instruments)
o Landscape Structures
o Supernova: Kompan
o Trilobites (in sand): Nature Watch

Secret Garden Large Elements
o Beechwood Metal Works

Shade Structure
o Classic Recreation

SKATESTOPPERS (on boulders)

Water Play
o Water Odyssey


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September 20, 2019, 2:32 pm PDT

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