Prairie Trails School Natural Playground


2022 Merit Award


Chicago, IL



Landscape Architects

TERRA Engineering, Ltd.

Project Details

With the vision to create a sustainable and integrated learning environment, the Prairie Trails Early Learning Center was transformed into a creative and engaging nature playground that extends learning outdoors. From the outset of the project, the landscape architect worked closely with the school administrators, teachers, and maintenance staff to create a space that would reintroduce children to the joys and possibilities of the natural world. The design combined multiple areas of the school curriculum to foster creativity and learning in unexpected environments using instruments, manipulation, and exploration. With open-ended learning environments, the joys of making mud pies in the outdoor kitchen, becoming frogs on the log steppers, or hiding in fairy houses in the hill, provide endless opportunities. The playground aims to become more than a ‘recess’ but an active participant in early childhood education. The goal of the 0.56-acre nature play area was to 1) integrate the school’s curriculum with the outdoor space, 2) engage all five senses, 3) create a variety of play experiences, and 4) align with the school’s vision of inclusivity and empowerment. In the former parking lot, the playground now connects to the existing greenspace and greenbelt floodway to the north. An accessible route winds through the nature play area with uniquely different play areas weaved throughout the trail including a reading garden, explorer’s sand and water area, art parade, vegetable garden, amphitheater, sledding hill, butterfly discovery trail, sound forest, and embankment wall and rock scramble. Topography was created from existing fill from the site to create the necessary detention basin to the west which provides a sledding hill and lookout point for the park. The play area supports an integrated curriculum that seeks to break the boundaries of a normal classroom. Science, technology, nature, and lessons of sustainability are all brought to life and on display in the natural playground. Growing vegetables, water, sand manipulation, or balancing scales all offer children a unique experience to not only play but to understand the nature of things beyond their environment

Project Team

Architect: FGM Architects Engineer: Eriksson Engineering Associates, Ltd. Contractor: Nicholas & Associates, Inc., Sebert Landscape

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