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Forest Park’s New Nature Playscape Beckons The Curious

Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Seven-year-old Sylvia Horning rambles over a tree-trunk-turned-play-element in the Anne O’C. Albrecht Nature Playscape and pretends the sandy base below is quicksand.

Over the past two years, an area of Forest Park the size of more than 15 football fields has been transformed into the Anne O’C. Albrecht Nature Playscape. It opened to the public earlier this week, sporting a colorful range of native and diverse plant species — and curiosity-sparking play elements made out of materials including limestone and willow branches.

“This is such a fun and unique space for our city's kids to explore a more natural environment — away from screens, thank God,” St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said, drawing laughter at the ribbon-cutting Tuesday, “and to engage their senses while taking in some fresh air.”

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
“Look Around,” instructs an interpretive sign along a pathway in Forest Park’s new nature playscape near the World’s Fair Pavilion. Each sign is the work of a different classroom of local elementary school students.

Establishing plans for the site was a long and in-depth process, and gathering children’s perspectives was a big part of that, Ellie Stevens, the education coordinator for Forest Park Forever, told St. Louis on the Air.

“In my mind, there is no more important part of the design team than the kids that gave us ideas for this space, and I love the fact that you can connect the dots from an idea that a child brought us to the actual elements that you have on-site,” she said on Friday’s show.

“We engaged about 400 kids through 19 different engagement activities that took place over the end of 2018 and through 2019. … We worked with children representing immigrant families, city residents, we connected with folks out in the county, we talked to children with special needs — all of them have their stamp on what you see in the playscape, because they brought us these wonderful, inspiring ideas about what would make it fun for them to play outside.”

Another goal was to ensure the playscape would “awaken the natural curiosity and joy that we all carry with us,” Stevens said.

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Ellie Stevens (at left) and Roman Fox joined Friday's "St. Louis on the Air."

“[We want] everyone to feel like they’re welcome and that they can access this space,” she said.

Now that vision is a reality, and the park’s horticultural team has been especially busy in recent months bringing its acres of vibrant flora to life.

“Prior to construction, this was an area that had a scattering of mature trees and just turf that needed to be mowed regularly,” explained Roman Fox, horticulture superintendent for Forest Park Forever. “The space does have a gentle topography that kind of slopes down to an existing forested area. … To transform it to what it is now was quite an undertaking.”

He noted that the main idea is that “someone can come here and just explore and get off the beaten path and find something new. … It’s [bringing to an urban environment] the things that, as a kid growing up in a rural or suburban setting, you end up doing in your backyard.”

All of the additions to the site are native plantings, Fox said.

Inside The Anne O’C. Albrecht Nature Playscape
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with representatives from Forest Park Forever and takes a quick trip to Forest Park's newest gem.

“Each play area has an ecological kind of theme to it, and the paintings are partnered with those,” he explained. “So you’ll go to areas that are something you would see maybe in the Ozark glades and the rocky limestone outcroppings, and then you’ll see some things that are maybe elements of prairies and meadows that you would see in different parts of the state.”

St. Louis County resident Ann Ruger, who volunteers with Forest Park Forever, strolled the playscape for the first time Tuesday.

“I’ve been very, very excited about this,” Ruger said. “I’ve been watching it develop for the last two years. ... The thing I like about it best is that it’s a place that kids can play with total freedom, and not adult-designed toys for them to go through at the prescribed pace.”

She added: “I am the grandmother of seven, and I can envision my husband and me bringing our chairs and sitting on the edge of one of these water features and watching the kids turn on the pumps and go up and down the rocks and wave to us as they’re doing exciting things, and we can just enjoy it from the sidelines.”

Seven-year-old St. Louisan Sylvia Horning was enthusiastic as well, sharing her thoughts between rambles along horizontally placed tree trunks.

“Going on the logs, and balancing on the little blocks — I love going on the rocks, too. I’m also pretending that the sand is quicksand.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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