Helle Nebelong designs America’s Greatest Natural Playground to be completed August 2022

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A former student of Colene Hoose Elementary School in Bloomington Normal, Illinois, has donated 5.1 million dollars to engage a team that includes one of the world’s leading landscape architects, Helle Nebelong, to create America’s most dynamic and engaging natural playground. Charlie Jobson grew up in the town of Normal and has returned to create the natural playground to honor his parents, who lived in the community for 40 years. “This project means the world to me,” says Mr. Jobson. “Not only does my family have deep roots in the community, but I believe natural playgrounds deepen our connection to nature and are vital for the health of our kids. I truly hope this project sets a new standard for school and community playgrounds in Normal and helps to inspire better parks and playgrounds across the US.”

A Model For Natural Playgrounds in the US

“Natural playgrounds make use of local natural materials and features to create engaging, inspiring and sensory stimulating spaces for children and their families,” stated the leader of the design team, Helle Nebelong. “The new playscape at Hoose Elementary is organically shaped with lots of different spaces like The Alphabet Labyrinth, The Snail-shaped mound, The River Garden, The Amphitheater and several multi-functional outdoor classrooms and play settings. Logs, boulders, sand, pebble stones, various trees and shrubs – including edible plants – and a huge meadow form the basis of the space.” Ms. Nebelong is a Danish Landscape Architect with her own practice, hellenebelong.com, that specializes in healthy and inclusive design. The essence of her approach is to create attractive and inspiring spaces where people’s well-being and creativity are developed through experiences with nature, culture, and architecture. “I am honored and grateful that Mr. Jobson has hand-picked me to be in charge of the overall design of the playground, which I know will enrich children’s and adult’s live for many years and hopefully be a model for lots of new natural playgrounds in the US.”

A Playground For All Children

On a traditional play structure, not only is there almost no sensory stimulation but 60% of the physical engagement for large muscle play and fitness is performed by 40% of children (the A type and most physically fit), while 60% of the children (the most vulnerable and least physically fit) are almost completely sedentary. Natural playgrounds, on the other hand, provide a balance in engagement levels for all children of all abilities in a sensory rich environment that produces big gains in kinesthetic sense, sense of place, and sense of wonder. They also provide outdoor classrooms, spaces for quiet contemplation, creative and dramatic play, fine motor engagement, balance, agility, gross motor, and cognitive engagement while boosting children’s immune systems and empathy scores. Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds (BNP) are responsible for the design build, and manufacturing of components for the project. “We have completed over 2,000 Natural Playgrounds from coast to coast, over the past two decades, establishing ourselves as the leader in designing and building natural playgrounds and outdoor learning environments in North America,” said Adam Bienenstock, the Founder of BNP. “It is an honor to be the Design/Builder for the project and to work with my longtime friends and heroes, Helle Nebelong, and Tim Gill, to bring Charlie Jobson’s dream of a world-class natural playground to Normal, Illinois. Based on the quality of this team, the support of the Jobson Foundation, and the remarkable commitment to excellence of the Superintendent, Board, Principal and staff at Colene Hoose Elementary, I am convinced that this Natural Playground and its Outdoor Classrooms will set the new standard in the US.” “This is a pivotal project at a time when we need to connect our children to nature more than ever,” noted Tim Gill, an ongoing advisor for the project. “As I noted in my new book, Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities; by viewing public spaces through the eyes of children, we create more inclusive and healthy cities, and a map for sustainable urban transformation.”

Designed with the Community

“The design for this project was presented to, and refined by, members of the local community along with members of the school and broader education and facilities staff,” noted Dr. Kristen Weikle, the Superintendent of the school district. “We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community.” “We are so honored to bring this natural playground at Colene Hoose Elementary,” noted Amy Roser, President of the Board of Education for the district. “This will be a showcase for our community and will bring creative outdoor play that will inspire the imaginations and confidence of our kids. This unprecedented and exceptionally generous gift to Unit 5 is providing a tremendous community asset without added costs to citizens. The entire community will benefit from this project.” “A natural playground at Colene Hoose will transform our grounds as well as our community,” said the Principal of the school. “This is an amazing opportunity and we couldn’t be more grateful to have such an amazing partnership with Mr. Jobson and his foundation. This shows the deep connections that were built at early ages in Unit 5, creating a desire to collaborate and to give back to help better our community and schools.” “The playground will feature many different experiences for our students, our staff, and our entire learning community. It was designed and created with input from our students, staff, and families, the variety of experiences that will be available on our grounds will allow our students to learn, play, and connect with the outdoors.” The project will commence construction in April 2022 and continue until August 15, 2022 and include planting of the meadow and hundreds of shrubs and trees. The natural playground will last for generations, matching the lifespan of traditional parks and playgrounds, and will comply with all building codes, accessibility regulations and playground standards.

Illinois Public Media, The 21st, has interviewed the benefactor Charlie Jobson, Adam Bienenstock, founder of a Natural Playground Company and Tim Gill, advocate for child-friendly cities about the coming natural playground on July 12, 2021.

Listen to the 15 minutes recording (the image shows a traditional, not natural playground!)