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A new natural playscape is coming together in Urbandale, designed for year-round, adaptable recreation


This wooden play structure at the Barrett Park Natural Playscape can be shifted by playground maintenance staff to form different types of structures. March 1, 2022. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Earlier this month, Jan Herke, director of Parks and Recreation for Urbandale, stepped onto a wooden play structure in Barrett Park.

“I can’t wait to climb this today,” she said.

Phase I of the city’s Natural Playscape project had just been completed, but Barrett Park, at the southeast corner of 156th Street and Waterford Road in Urbandale, is still under construction. Right now, the lot has just the beginnings of a recreational area: a restroom, a parking lot, some play structures. But in the coming months, the space will be transformed into a natural playscape that is usable all year round.

“Every person will see things differently here,” Herke said. “And it’s changing all the time. So when it’s snowing, it will be a different experience.”

According to a study conducted by the University of Tennessee, “children who play on playgrounds that incorporate natural elements like logs and flowers tend to be more active than those who play on traditional playgrounds with metal and brightly colored equipment.” This is because a natural playground’s ever-changing nature encourages more exploration, resulting in longer playtimes.

“You go to another park and you go down a slide, there’s only so many times you can go down a slide, right?” Herke said. “At this park, every time you go here, you can do something different. The park staff will be bringing different logs and branches and sticks to different spots of the park every day. As you can see from the pump here, when you have water, the kids can play in the mud kitchen there.”

The Natural Playscape will include an area for water play, creek access, a rope course, a log fort, a mud kitchen, an outdoor classroom and other features. While the playscape aims to be an enjoyable space for children to play, it’s also intended to offer a unique opportunity to educate children about the environment.

“We talked about the importance of getting people at a young age to appreciate the environment, to appreciate water quality,” Herke said. “Getting kids started early, where once they’re excited about it, then hopefully it’s a lifelong journey for them to be excited about. And to protect the waterways and the environment and the trees and all of those things.”

Creek access area at Barrett Park, March 1, 2022 — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

The programming is still coming together, but Park and Recreation Department staff are already looking forward to introducing children to one of the park’s most unique features, its creek access.

“I think the access to the creek is important because we’ve kind of protected people from them for years,” said Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation Scott Hock. “[Now we’ll] have an accessible path for anyone to get down close and to encourage that, to get to that part of nature that we have protected ourselves from for way too long.”

Access was an important consideration when building the playscape, in more ways than one, according to Herke.

In addition to allowing children to get closer to nature, the space has also been designed to be accessible for people with mobility limitations. Herke said that accessibility was a very high priority during the park’s planning process.

“Willow arches are designed to easily move a wheelchair through while engaging with a group of friends. There are transfer stones for wheelchair users to access the sand pit play area, climbing cave, and the creek play area alongside their peers,” she explained. “Water troughs and the water pump are situated to provide easy access for a person in a wheelchair as they play alongside children of all abilities. One of the elevated play tables in the loose parts play area can be accessed from the adjacent sidewalk by wheelchair users and also accessed from other sides by children of any ability to allow social, interactive play.”

There is no official date set for the grand opening of the park, but Herke and Hock said they’re hoping for early summer.

“2022, it will be open and it’ll be exciting,” Herke said.

Plan for Barrett Park — courtesy of Urbandale Parks and Recreation

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