3 Playgrounds that Pack a Punch

From tree houses and nests to musical instruments, these playgrounds pull out all the stops.



Opening of Discovery Woodlands at Shelby Farms Ushers in a New Era

Several generations of children have played at Shelby Farms’ playground, which offered the usual, ho-hum array of slides, swings, and a jungle gym. Yawn. Well, say good-bye to ho-hum. With the opening of the Woodlands Discovery Playground on Saturday, April 8th, the county’s largest public park now offers the most imaginative playground in town — and given the recent competition, that’s saying a lot. 

The three-acre playground is oriented around a serpentine, vine-covered arbor that leads children to several play spaces. Each room or nest has a its own emphasis: open spaces perfect for a game of tag, a big bowl with slides, and a climbing wall that will give little monkeys a workout, even a nest for reading or sharing secrets. A recent visit convinced me this will be one of those playgrounds your kids will want to return to again and again. 

Not only does it encourage creative play, the grounds have been designed with an eye towards environmental stewardship. According to Shelby Farms Executive Director Laura Adams, play surfaces use recycled Nike tennis shoes, there’s been woodland and native plants restoration, and water from the parking lot run-off will be cleansed with the use of bioswales before trickling into the aquifer. Work with landscape architects also led to receive LEED certification. Shelby Farms is just one of 100 parks nationally to receive such designation. 

Adams observes that too many playgrounds have been built in recent years with an eye towards avoiding litigation rather than encouraging physical development. 

“We want to get kids outdoors in a creative play space where they can test themselves and expand their sense of risk. That’s so important to creating a healthy child,” says Adams. “We’re hoping this playground will be one other cities and parks want to model themselves after.” • The ribbon cutting takes place at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 8th. The playground opens to the public at noon. — Jane Schneider

My Big Backyard Children’s Garden at Memphis Botanic Gardens ranks as one of the more creative play spaces — plan a visit to this charming space. 

How much fun can a child have bird-watching from a magnolia canopy? Or catching a shower at the Raindrop Stop? Or jamming with friends on musical instruments? Just ask Collierville parent Kyra Barger, whose daughters Maeve and Sage are regulars at this children’s garden. 

“My kids and I love My Big Backyard,” she says. “It’s colorful, interactive and fun. We love the house with the chalkboard and have fun at the House of Rock with all of the metal instruments. We like dressing up the metal figures and taking pictures with them.”

The botanic garden’s family memberships increased dramatically after My Big Backyard opened in August 2009. That’s because this 2.5 acre garden, designed by Cindy Tyler of Terra Designs, connects families with nature for fun and learning, and to instill respect for the environment.

 “In a world of video games and heavily orchestrated schedules, escaping to the imagination of a big backyard is a part of growing up that so many children miss,” said Jim Duncan, executive director of Memphis Botanic Garden.

Art adds whimsy to the garden

My Big Backyard is the first certified Nature Explore Classroom in the state, a living classroom with a butterfly garden and a small pond. Here you’ll find a classroom and an all-weather learning center stocked with hands-on items.

Artistic creations also add whimsy befitting a children’s garden. Imaginative works, contributed by 30 local artists, dot the garden. Among them are dress-up scarecrows by Mary Cour Burrows, stained glass insects created by Suzy Hendrix, and a copper Chrysalis Swing designed by Bill Price. In the Welcome Wildlife area, giant metal flowers crafted by Elijah Gold are not only colorful but help kids identify the pistil, stamen, and seeds of a plant.

For children who love making music (or maybe just making a racket), the popular House of Rock holds a surprise this spring. After more than a year of play, the original instruments have been replaced, thanks to Sean Murphy and Anne Froning Wike. Through their business Being: Art, they design instruments for Nature Explore Classrooms around the country artists as well as artists-in-residence at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. The pair were hired to craft instruments from household items with the hope of inspiring parents to make similar instruments at home.

Creative use of recycled materials

New House of Rock instruments include hanging chimes made from rebar, chimes made from metal conduits, a xylophone-like instrument made of wrenches, and bowl gongs made from stainless steel bowls.

With the debut of the new instruments, there’s an opportunity to teach children to handle instruments with care. “It’s a chance to teach kids to respect an instrument, so that cymbals won‘t be torn off the wall,” says Froning Wike.

Murphy and Froning Wike crafted African hardwood percussive instruments for the garden’s Backyard Bluff. The Cajon is played with mallets or with hands, the Kidimbarimba is part xylophone and part resonating marimba, and the Log Drum is derived from the African tongue drum. Near Backyard Bluff, handmade Noah Bells from Tibet hang in bamboo trees. Kids who shake the trees get a delightful surprise.

Plantings in the themed Idea Garden rotate each season. From May through October, the Wizard’s Garden will feature a Wizard’s School with Herbology Lab, Potions Classroom, Wand Workshop, and vegetable and broomcorn patches.

The staff hopes the garden exhibits will inspire visitors to take a bit of beauty back home to their own backyards. “We want to show easy ways for parents to garden at home,” says Julie Baltz, outreach coordinator with Memphis Botanic Garden. — Stephanie Painter

Memphis Botanic Garden admission: $5/adults, $3/ages 3-12, free/ages 2 & under. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Everybody’s Tree House is accessible to all

Kids are on the move at Everybody’s Tree House playground, where play is fun for kids of all ability levels. Named for a wheelchair-accessible tree house, Germantown’s newest playground at Riverdale Park shows what more playgrounds will look like in the future.

“Whether you have an ability or disability, there’s something for everyone to do here,” says Pam Beasley, director of parks and recreation for the City of Germantown. “We went beyond the minimum ADA requirements to create a truly inclusive environment.”

When the playground opened last August, Riverdale Park quickly became the most heavily used of Germantown’s 26 parks. Families appreciate the inclusive design that removes physical and social barriers and engages all children. Aboard the Rock and Roll swing, a child in a wheelchair can swing to the sky with friends or take a ramp to the top of an 18-foot tree house.

“With Everybody’s Tree House, the community embarked on a process to develop a park that’s unique to standard,” says Beasley. With proximity to Riverdale Elementary School and an existing tree canopy, the park was an ideal spot for a universal playground. Native Tennessee plants, boulders, and trees blend with monkey bars and swings, giving visitors the sense that they have slipped into the woods. Plantings draw butterflies, ladybugs, and songbirds to the area.

Alexis Doan, a fifth-grader at Riverdale Elementary, loves playing at Everybody’s Tree House. “When I first saw the tree house, I was amazed at how big it is,” she says. Alexis often checks on the new plants growing in her school’s garden. “It‘s fun to be there with my friends,” she says, adding that the Rock and Roll swing gives all of her classmates a chance to swing together.

From the start, Everybody’s Tree House has been a powerful symbol of community unity. Baptist Rehabilitation-Germantown arranged a $150,000 grant from Baptist Memorial Foundation, and playground equipment manufacturer PlayCore provided $150,000 in equipment. The hospital had identified nature experiences as beneficial in treatment of conditions that include ADHD, learning disabilities, and orthopedic challenges. Next, residents brainstormed in focus groups, and children helped give ideas for the design and vision of the project.

More than 200 community volunteers worked together one hot July Saturday for Build Day, putting the finishing touches on the playground and landscaping. “People who have participated in community-built projects have described them as an ‘experience of a lifetime,’ ” says Beasley.

Terri Harris, Riverdale Elementary’s PTSA president, says, “We are so grateful to the City of Germantown for providing a neighborhood park that our school can use as a playground.”

The park’s original playground equipment was repurposed at North Haven Park in Millington. In several months, the city will begin installing another community-built playground, The Delta at Dogwood Park. Students at Dogwood Elementary School are competing to design a logo for the park.

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