The new McKinley Community Play Garden is an engaging and innovative nature play garden located adjacent to the McKinley Park Library, southwest of downtown Chicago. The play garden is unique in that it is held in a land trust and is maintained and programmed by community residents.
The nature play project was initiated by community members that saw potential in an underutilized neighborhood arboretum. They approached NeighborSpace, a nonprofit land trust, which preserves and sustains greenspaces on behalf of community groups in Chicago. site design group, ltd. (site), working with NeighborSpace and community members, developed the master concept plan. While maintaining the existing mature trees and natural topography on the site, creative play elements were incorporated into the landscape in an effort to encourage interaction, play, and exploration with nature. The nature-based play features were then created and built on the spot by consultants from GRG Playscapes and design/build contractor Alex Enarson. A unique aspect of this project involved using salvaged building materials, rubble and architectural details which were sourced from demolition sites within the McKinley Park neighborhood, helping to preserve something of the industrial heritage of the community.
A new park entrance greets visitors with an arbor and custom signage. To the north, a repurposed shipping container serves as park storage, a “play-tainer,” and gathering place. In the mud kitchen and build area, a miniature marketplace, mud kitchen, and loose-parts storage area create opportunities for creativity and imaginative play. Nearby, crane rail was bent to create a curving track or trail, and disused art shipping crates were repurposed for play. The rail leads visitors through a prairie maze to the shipwreck gravel pit, which features an old wooden boat tipped on its side and surrounded by a log obstacle course, balance beam, log tunnel, and lush plantings. On the south side of the site, a forest climbing zone has nests, as well as tree climbers and stump obstacles for adventurers. All of the existing trees were preserved, with minimal pruning done to ensure safety for climbing and play. Encircling the play garden is an accessible path with additional play features in the center. A central climbing structure serves as the main gathering point and play deck area and is surrounded by a lawn. Nearby, a working runnel with a water pump is surrounded by outcropping and stump seating, as well as reclaimed building artifacts, organized in a rectangular pattern to create a ruin-like setting. Lastly, a fortress area provides birds-eye views of the play garden for those daring enough to climb the repurposed iron spiral staircase.
A true community space, the play garden was made possible through countless volunteer hours not only in the design phase but throughout construction, planting, and ongoing care of the site. The McKinley Community Play Garden has become a valued community resource for the surrounding area, a community with limited access to nature and open space. The success of the garden can be attributed in large part to the tremendous effort exhibited by NeighborSpace and the community in visioning, execution, and now stewarding the space for all.