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VOL. 126 | NO. 68 | Thursday, April 07, 2011

Shelby Farms Unveils New Playground

By Aisling Maki

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Wild songbirds provided the music for a springtime scene straight out of a fairy tale, as Snow White – illuminated in sunshine and surrounded by blossoming trees – read a story to a wide-eyed little girl seated at her side.

Camden White, who attended Tuesday’s event with his dad, Tyler White, navigates the swing nest and net and tree house nest.

(Photo Courtesy of Jen Andrews)

Meanwhile, Memphis musician Jason Freeman meandered through the greenery like a troubadour, strumming “Itsy Bitsy Spider” on his banjo as dozens of young children frolicked in the new Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park Tuesday during its well-attended, members-only sneak peek.

Children familiarized themselves with the new playground while having their faces painted, mingling with a bevy of costumed volunteers and indulging in sweet treats compliments of locally owned YoLo Frozen Yogurt.

Situated in one of the largest urban parks in the nation, Woodland Discovery Playground’s innovative, accessible criteria – including adventure, discovery, health, nature, fun and surprises – was determined by the children it’s created to serve.

“The kids are saying it best themselves with the way that they’re using it,” said Laura Adams, executive director of Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. “When we designed it, we were really trying to break the mold with how people think about outdoor play; working to design a play space that encourages healthy behaviors and environmental stewardship.”

Adams said that the playground is truly one of a kind; so unique, in fact, that the anthropology department at Rhodes College will be conducting a study onsite.

“There’s never been a playground like this built in the United States or really anywhere,” she said.

An extensive arbor links and surrounds six outdoor playrooms called “nests,” which make use of slides, swings, climbing areas, tunnels, sandy play areas and water features, all constructed with consideration for ecological and human well-being in a natural setting.

The arbor, made from custom-engineered steel, has been planted with native fast-growing plants and vines, designed to grow in different seasons for continuous visual and olfactory stimulation.

“I think it’s really fun, especially the sand area, where you can take your shoes off, and I also like the swings,” said Margret Lambert, 9, one of the first children to access the new sustainably built play landscape. “I did not know that they could use (recycled) shoe soles to make the ground; that was really cool. I also like that in some parts it’s OK for disabled kids to play, because most parks aren’t like that.”

The playground is a pilot project of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a collaborative between the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the American Society of Landscape Architects, whose goal is to create more sustainable landscapes by bringing LEED-type certifications to landscapes.

The floor is composed of Nike-Grind, a permeable material made from crushed, recycled athletic shoes. The area also includes sustainable hardwoods, crushed gravel and a substance made from the ground rubber soles of Army boots. There are recycling bins throughout, and designated parking spaces for carpools and fuel-efficient vehicles.

On the edge of the playground lies an area recently planted with local tree species, with help from Tennessee’s Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Department, in an effort to rid the landscape of an invasive species of privet. The hope is that the plantings will allow the growth of a forest under-story, which will in turn allow dependent wildlife to return to the area.

Caleb Tinkle, Shelby Farms Park membership development associate, said park membership fosters a sense of ownership, an important consideration in light of the new, unique playground.

“Everyone loves Shelby Farms,” Tinkle said. “It’s a free park, and we’re a nonprofit. Just to keep all the grounds mowed and the trash picked up, that alone is huge. We manage the entire (Shelby Farms) Greenline. It’s a mountain of work. If they want to keep it pristine and beautiful, membership is a great, affordable and manageable way to support what we’re doing.”

And membership has steadily increased with the construction of the new playground, the opening of the Greenline, and the larger community movement towards a greener Memphis.

“We’re signing people up just as fast as I can get their cards out,” said Tinkle, adding that membership stands at roughly 900 households, or, conservatively, 2,400 individuals.

Tinkle, who stepped into his new role in November, said he’s been steadily working to “give the membership program a pulse” by adding as much value to the membership program as he can, with discounts on shelter rentals, discounts at a long list of local businesses, and a host of special events, like Tuesday’s members-only sneak peek of the playground.

A small portion of funding comes from local government, but the majority comes from private donations.

“We love the park,” Tinkle said. “It’s a hub geographically, and the park is a leader in the green movement. It can’t be (overstated) how much we need and appreciate that support.”

The Woodland Discovery Playground opens to the public Friday.

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