For the city of Little Rock, Ark., nature is a high priority when it comes to children’s growth.
A book written by Richard Louv in 2005, called “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” has impacted city officials’ decisions when it comes to children’s play throughout Little Rock.
“If kids are not presented with nature or don’t play with nature or don’t have that experience, when those kids grow up, who is going to be saving our forests or creating that experience for the next generation?” the city’s Park Design Manager Leland Couch asked.
According to Couch, City Director Dean Kumpuris has always placed a big focus on the city’s Riverfront Park. It boasts a custom-design sculpture garden, toddler playground and the city’s first natural splash pad, which was constructed in 2006.
“(Kumpuris) wanted to be able to create an urban experience where children could go and play with water and natural materials, not just your big bright metal playgrounds.”
A natural state, Arkansas is known for its forests, creeks and rivers.
“To bring a little bit of that into the urban environment for kids to play with was something we thought was special,” Couch continued.
The first natural splash pad, Peabody Playground — located in Riverfront Park — features a variety of natural architecture to envelope the playground throughout. Large native boulders were harvested from northern Arkansas to create the majority of the design-build project.
“We’d have say 100 boulders delivered and we’d say, ‘You need to stack them and make a wall.’ (The construction workers would) joke and say that the boulders weren’t numbered. There wasn’t a puzzle or a design for how these boulders went together.”
Ultimately, Couch ended up moving into an office at the park and working there for several months to assist with the design process of the walls.
“This is not your typical playground system,” he said.
The design-build project cost roughly $800,000, according to Couch, due to the use of contracted labor, which is substantially more than a typical playground.
Couch added, “It would be hard to compare this to the cost of a normal playground.”
Still, it was so well received that the city decided to add another at War Memorial Park.
The natural splash pads feature lots of landscaping, open terrain, tunnels, slides and even swings.
“I always feel like there is a need for a big dramatic slide or a swing set or a climber (in) each of these; we’ve incorporated those pieces,” Couch said. “At War Memorial we have slides, but the slides are buried in boulders, so you don’t see them but you still have that experience.”
Unlike Peabody Playground, War Memorial Park’s splash pad was created by staff of the parks department. It cost roughly $400,000.
“You can’t just pick War Memorial playground out of a catalog and say, ‘This is what I want.’ It was custom fitted to the site and the design. We had great staff that helped us develop it. That’s not to say that it can’t be done.”
Being a certified playground inspector, Couch knew there were some risks involved with creating the unique splash pads.
“We put in your typical safety standards, but the guidelines don’t have anything in there saying, ‘If you stack this many boulders, you need this much fall height,’ but we took the idea from the playground components and made it fit to what we were designing.”
Couch said he felt like the rewards of the structure outweighed the risks, though. The city kept a book of public comments that officials used to modify the parks in the early years.
To keep the playground safe, some things just couldn’t be natural, the ground material, for example. They chose to use poured-in-place rubber.
“We realized that using a loose material such as mulch or pea gravel wasn’t going to be the best material in this case and the rubber has done really well,” he explained.
Despite the fact that Little Rock boasts these two unique splash pad environments, Couch admitted he’s excited for the introduction of a traditional splash pad to the community.
“I’m excited to see the comparison. It’ll be like, ‘What kind of splash pad do people want to go to today?’”
The new splash pad was funded 10 years ago after a survey of the community indicated a need for improvements to one community park. They broke ground in February.
The projects haven’t been without their fair share of concerns. One scenario the city did decide to change was the flow rate of the water. As it turns out, the kids don’t notice.
“These are running city water that you could drink. Little Rock is blessed with a very good source of water so we don’t have the concerns some other parts of the country might have in terms of cost of water.”
The water for the splash pads is run through city water and then drained into a nearby wetland to ultimately drain out to a river or creek after sitting.
“Because we did that, we are not paying sewer rates on the water, we are not paying for chemicals, we’re not having to pull the water because it’s all gravity fed, and we don’t have to have a lifeguard go out and test the water to make sure it’s up to clean standards for kids to play in because it’s always fresh and clean.” Couch said. “Kids could actually stick their head in and drink it; I mean, I wouldn’t tell them to but they could.”
Couch hopes the splash pads will offer the opportunity to experience nature to kids who might not normally be able to.
“Hopefully, kids will go down and experience this and have fun playing in what we’ve created here and say, ‘I want to experience more of this,’ and they’ll go out and experience it for real in nature.”