Welles Park Nature Play Space Now Open
Story and Photos by Peter von Buol
The Welles Park Nature Play Space, located within the popular North Side park at 2333 W. Sunnyside Ave., was officially opened to the public after a June 16 ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The 1.23-acre natural play space is one of seven planned by the park district and replaces what had been the older of the park’s two playground areas.
At the ceremony, Welles Park Supervisor Becky Kliber praised the community spirit that had supported the creation of the park’s natural play space.
“We are actually the first park of its kind that did not already have an existing natural area. All together, we decided we wanted to create this. It is actually much bigger than we had anticipated in the beginning. This all started as the dream of myself, and a few members of the Welles Park Advisory Council. The neighborhood has embraced it whole-heartedly and we were able to create this lovely area,” Kliber said.
Funding for the construction of the $179,000 nature-based recreation area was provided by the Chicago Park District, the Welles Park Advisory Council (WPAC), including $30,000 from the city of Chicago through Ald. Ameya Pawar’s aldermanic menu money and a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Included among the project’s early financial supporters was The Gene and Rosemary Schulter Foundation.
In addition to Kliber, also participating in the Saturday morning ribbon-cutting ceremony were members of the park’s advisory council, many of whom had worked countless volunteer hours to advocate for the addition of a natural play space to the park.
Natural play spaces are designed to encourage hands-on play experiences within a natural setting. Landscaped with native trees, shrubs and flowers, these natural spaces are also meant to be used by residents of all ages.
The natural play area was designed specifically for Welles Park and includes six small hills, a tree circle council ring, a log-balancing course, log-steppers, a climbing stone, a mud kitchen, a build wall, a tree climber, sensory bins, and sensory garden raised beds. Stumps, sticks, tree cookies, native trees, shrubs and prairie and woodland plant species round out the project. These elements, placed throughout the space, are meant to inspire nature-based exploration, and fun for all ages.
Additional features for the park’s natural play space, including plantings and other project components, are scheduled to be installed in the fall.
Incorporating suggestions from the park’s greening committee, the natural play area was designed by Site Design Group, LLC., a Chicago-based landscape architectural firm.
Natural play areas are actually not a new development for Chicago parks. In the late 19th century, the legendary landscape architect Jens Jensen incorporated natural play areas into his designs for Humboldt Park. Jensen’s goal had been to provide adults and children with an opportunity to escape urban life. He wanted the city’s park patrons to experience nature as he had experienced it while growing up on his family’s farm in his native Denmark.
For decades, park district officials emphasized athletics as the primary purpose of neighborhood parks. While athletics and other recreational activities continue to be a significant activity in city parks, natural areas have increasingly been added to parts of neighborhood parks.
In a written statement, Michael P. Kelly, the superintendent and chief executive officer of the park district, explained the park district’s rationale for adding natural play areas to neighborhood parks.
“There is enormous value in reimagining park spaces to reconnect kids to nature and inspire heathy living. With support from residents that realize the significance of investing in our natural areas, the park district is committed to revitalizing our green spaces to create innovative opportunities for everyone to enjoy nature in our urban landscapes,” Kelly said. Chicago Park District facilities that currently incorporate natural play components are found at the North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd., West Ridge Nature Preserve at 5801 N. Western and Indian Boundary Park, 2500 W. Lunt.
According to officials at the park district, nature play areas are managed with a goal of at least 50 percent native plant coverage that provides habitat benefits for local wildlife and educational benefits for children.
The park district works with local community groups to fund and maintain the natural play spaces. Its grant program allows local groups to provide financial support at any stage of the nature play space process. This includes the design, installation, maintenance, and training phases. Additional information is available at https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/nature-play-spaces.
Welles Park honors Gideon Welles (1802-1878), who served as secretary of the navy under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.