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Concept Proposal for a Children's Exploration and Discovery Play Garden at Midway Plaisance
At the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference Board meeting November 6, 2003, David Guyer, of the UofC Office of Community Relations, presented a general description of Midway plans description and drawings of the proposed Children's Garden. He described its learning themes and assured the board that while animals may be brought in from time to time, it will not have a "petting zoo" and that such issues as security have been well thought out. Cost would be $3 for the facility and $3 for endowment for teaching and upkeep.

May 14, 2003, the Chicago Park District, The University of Chicago, and EDAW Inc. unveiled to a community meeting concepts for a 1 to two acre Children's Play Garden between Stony Island Avenue, Canadian National Railway, and Midway Plaisance drives. The presentation was intended to informally announce an effort to raise 6 to 7 million dollars to cover design, construction and provisioning, and endowment for full staffing and maintenance of the facility. Careful thought and consultation, including with child psychology and play experts and with designers of and observers of learning and activity in such gardens elsewhere around the world. This would be the first such free garden in a public park and intended to serve all classes of people, free. It would be quite a coup for the South Side, a regional draw, and a nexus or articulator in the South Parks--near the Perennial Garden, MSI, I-House, Wooded Island/Osaka Garden. Naturally, attendees had serious questions and tantalizing suggestions, such as for more material and activities for winter, reference to the Columbian Exposition midway and the Boulevard System, and preference for a 6 rather than 4 foot high wall. Continued concept development and 12-18 months of fundraising is anticipated starting summer, 2003. It is recognized that the project may have to be done in stages. Also, some Hyde Parkers vocally oppose the garden, although the only argument this writer has seen that is based on both fact and expectable outcomes is that great care must be taken near this convergence of busy arterials. There is also resentment of the University's "taking over" the Midway as an institutional preserve.

This garden was originally sited on a western south panel of the Plaisance, but this site was found to be much too small and unsuitable for safety. The new site is not only much larger and open but sited by good transportation and a major arterial and has (at least for now) parking suitable for what is hoped to become a regional as well as neighborhood draw.

Key will be staffing with trained"play workers" or partners (staff)--of which none exist here, although there are now thousands in Britain and Japan. Play workers facilitate rather than lead play. Plans provide for exploration and learning by oneself, in groups, as families, and with staff. Key is also the loose materials and objects to be found and manipulated, and tools to work in the gardens or the natural area. . The walled, circular garden will have three kidney-bean shaped gardens around an innovative play center which, along with the entryway, features enormous 15-foot high "pots" (that also double as indoor space and facilities), accessible ramp ways to viewing and siting areas, slide-poles, and peek-a-boo walls. The 4 gardens are farm/vegetable, flower, wild place, and another. Unfortunately, the following renderings give only a small sample of what's being designed for the garden.

Children's Garden prospectus opening page

Children's garden  looking northwest

Farm and Vegetable Garden sector

Flower Garden sector

Wild Place sector

Play Center with terra cotta "pots"

Two-acre, $7M Children's Garden planned for Midway

Hyde Park Herald, May 21, 2003. By Maurice Lee


The Chicago Park District and the University of Chicago unveiled plans last week for an ambitious new children's garden to be built at the east end of he Midway between Stony Island Avenue and the Metra embankment. But to build the proposed garden, which would include three interactive themed gardens and an innovative new children's "play worker" program, planners will have to raise $6 to $7 million dollars at a time when many funding sources are drying up.

Set prominently on what is now a muddy, slightly sunken four-acre swath of land at the eastern entry to the Midway, a stone's throw from the Columbia Basin, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Wooded Island, the Children's Garden is being designed by the park district and the university as a regional draw for the area. With its bright colors and fanciful design, planners hope the garden will become a neighborhood landmark.

The proposed two-acre circular garden will include three interactive play areas--a farm, a flower garden and a nature area. The farm/vegetable garden will house small farm animals, play-sized farm machinery and a tool house where visitors can grab garden tools and "work" in the garden. The flower garden will offer color-themed flower patches, arbor gateways and "peek-a-boo" walls--low walls for children to hide behind. And the "Wild Place" nature area will provide features like bridges, stepping-stone paths and a forest walk to allow kids to get close to a living forest and wetland area.

The centerpiece of the garden will be a play center made up of a series of massive terra-cotta style pots with handicapped accessible ramps to the top, a shaded parent seating area and slides and sliding poles.

Planners believe the pots, which will be at least 15-feet-tall, will become a landmark for the neighborhood.

"It will be a Buckingham Fountain for Hyde Park," said project designer Herb Schaal.

The Children's Garden will also offer an innovative pilot program for guiding children through play. Rather than being run on a traditional park district model of recreational workers leading visitors through structured activities, the Children's Garden will employ "play workers," a class of children's recreational facilitators new to the U.S., according to play worker project consultant Roger Hart.

Rather than instruct the children, play workers support children as the design their own recreational experience, providing them materials and resources to help them do it themselves. Play workers encourage children to be creative, like using a pile of sticks to build a nest or making mud pies, facilitating the activity without being too intrusive or evaluating the children's efforts.

While the concept is already being utilized in many private institutions around the country--Brookfield Zoo already employs play workers in its family zoo--the joint park district/U. of C. Children's Garden will be on [of] its first uses in the public sector.

"Play workers support children to do what they do best, which is to play and learn through play," said Hart. "Play workers are really trained to listen, to observe and to support and to facilitate play. It's very exciting that Chicago is taking a lead on this."

"It's very dynamic for the South Side of Chicago," agreed SECC and Children's [G]arden steering committee member Marcy Schlessinger. "It's very encouraging that the park district is partnering with the university to do it and it will be great for our kids."

The play worker component is seen as so crucial to the overall success of the project that planners are counting funds necessary to endow the workers' salaries as part of the project's price tag.

"You can build [the Children's Garden], but unless you can adequately staff it to maximize what it is that you're building, and even create opportunities for things that we didn't intend to happen, then we haven't met the vision of this 18-month process," said park district Southeast Region Manager Kim Bailey.

But finding the money may prove to be a daunting task even for the combined efforts of the university and park district.

"This is a challenging time to raise resources for projects. I think there will be a lot of interest. I think that the key is finding a lead donor. There are a number of [potential sources]," said university Vice President for Community and Governmental Affairs Hank Webber, "but those individuals and foundations all have many opportunities to be lead donors on projects. So the key is finding someone who thinks this is really a great project."

With potential funding difficulties in mind, planners are looking at creative ways to sidestep shortfalls--like possibly building the park in smaller pieces as funds allow--if necessary.

But planners remain confident they will be able to push the project forward in the end.

"There are lots of details still left to work out, but I think they're workable," said Schlessinger.