Things are changing at North Overlook Beach at Lake Red Rock in Pella. What was once an unused, wooded area is slowly turning into a place where children can play and learn about the natural world.
Rewind to last spring, where the junior seminar environmental studies students were trying to pick out a project to complete the capstone and communications requirement for their major.
“I decided I wanted students to do something hands on,” says Anya Butt, director of the environmental studies program. “There are a lot of real world applications that the students are learning that they should be applying.”
The project that caught their attention was an idea for a natural playscape at Lake Red Rock. Natural playscapes are playgrounds using natural materials that are shaped from or mimic the environment to create interactive spaces for children to play.
“The playscape poses a unique opportunity for children to both play and learn in a natural environment,” says Ryan Dusil, senior environmental studies major. “The playscape in Marion County will be one of three in the state of Iowa and will help encourage kids to be active and creative outdoors”
To get the project off the ground, the junior seminar class wrote a grant proposal to the Marion County Community Foundation which provided $1,500 in support. And the momentum for the project kept building as the students brainstormed how to create opportunities for children to play and learn.
In the final design, the playscape will feature a balancing course made of logs, a living tunnel with plants growing as an arbor, a restored prairie-maze, a boulder-field scavenger hunt and a recreation of an early settlement with a simulated river. There will also be an amphitheater for the Red Rock Association to hold nature programs.
This year, two environmental studies senior, Ryan McPherren and Dusil, are heading up the project to enact the plans made last spring. The first big project of this fall was to help write a grant proposal for the Red Rock Lake Association to 3M in Knoxville for funding some of the playscape.
“We had about seven days to rewrite the proposal,” says Butt, “This grant ended up being for $30,000. Total, these two students have brought in $31,500 in funding for the project. I’m a little in awe of them and their commitment.”
Besides receiving support from the Marion County Community Foundation, 3M, the Red Rock Lake Association and the Army Corps of Engineers, Dusil and McPherren received extra manpower. In honor of their 65th anniversary, Vermeer Corporation sent nearly 100 employee volunteers (and their children) to help build the first play area, which consisted of a balancing course made out of logs, an interactive sundial and the amphitheater.
“As soon as we were finished with the balancing course the kids were already climbing all over it,” says Butt with a laugh. “We told them, ‘We’re not done yet!’ and the kids were saying, ‘Oh, we have to climb this!’ They were just going crazy playing on it. That’s when I knew the project was a success.”
Work on the playscape will continue over the next couple semesters even after Dusil and McPherren graduate. Three more play areas need to be built and the prairie area will take several years to grow to maturity—there will be another service event next semester to keep the project on track. Afterwards, the Army Corps of Engineers will take over the maintenance of the playscape.
“This is a great program that Central offers for environmental studies,” says McPherren, reflecting on the experience. “We have gotten to experience aspects of what a real environmental job would be like, and learned how to write grants in order to fund our projects. Not many students have this opportunity.”
Through all the work and planning, McPherren also looks ahead to the future benefits of the playground, as well. “More kids are staying indoors and not able to use their imaginations,” says McPherren. “This playscape will give kids an opportunity to get outdoors and explore. Hopefully, this playground shows kids that the outdoors can be a fun place to play.”