A “Playscape” in Every Yard

Tony Malkusak is a landscape architect in Iowa City, Iowa, and he’s on a mission. He’s trying to create a model that can stamp out a fun, vibrant “playscape” – i.e. a nature-based landscape made for play – in every yard.

He’s already taken the first crucial step: he’s created a prototype playscape in his own back yard for his four youngest children. He treats his yard like his laboratory. “Over the last five years, I’ve gone through, oh, 30 or 40 iterations here,” said Tony. “I’m still out there trying new things out practically every weekend.”

Nonetheless, it’s not too early to call his yard an unqualified success. “Our yard is the hangout for our subdivision. It’s the hub,” he says. “Depending on the time of year, I’ll often see at least a half dozen kids out there, and many of these kids aren’t mine. I’ve seen as many as 12, 13, 14 kids out there on many occasions.”

The first thing he did was dump a truckload of play sand in his back yard. Later, he built a pergola that has served as a gathering place, and built two large sand pits and filled them with the play sand. Then there was the stone stairway; the swing with high back for his son, Anthony, who has hypotonia (low muscle tone); the deck by the sand pits; the chalk board and storage shelves; the bench in the pergola; the swing set; the tunnel; the water rapids and pondless waterfall; the prairie, a half-acre area with wild grasses that don’t need cutting; the vegetable garden; the berry patches; and a stage for kids’ performances.

The kids have a great deal of control over the evolution of their yard. For one thing, between the weekends when he installs features, Tony watches how kids use the yard. From those observations he gets his many ideas for new features and adjustments. He also created a “Secret Sandtrap Society” for kids to come up with ideas more explicitly. He credits the Society with changing a fountain into another water feature, for instance.

Kids also have a great deal of control over what their back yard looks like day-to-day. “There isn’t the pressure to, ‘Oh we’ve got to be pristine and cleaned up every time you leave the site,'” said Tony. “This shows the kids that we value what they’re doing.”

The most outstanding example of this lies in the 3000 pounds of “river jacks” – 3 to 6 inch round, flat, smooth rocks – that he acquired a few years ago. He stashed them somewhere because he couldn’t use them for the purpose he had intended, but kids ended up taking them all over the yard to make things like army guy forts, sculptures, houses, and a mud kitchen.

By being so close to the kid culture that formed around their playscape over five years, Tony has gained many unique, fundamental insights. Other landscape architects design design one iteration and leave, never living through the cycles of trial and error that Tony has.

Standing at the entry gate to Tony's back yard playscape are Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of Nature Explore, John Rosenow, Executive Director of The Arbor Day Foundation, and Tony. The plaque on the right announces this yard's official certification as a Nature Explore Environment, the first such honor for a residential yard.

Now, he’s working on a project to leverage these insights for five new playscapes in the Iowa City area. Like his playscape, the playscapes for this project will emphasize children’s social play and nature. Their cost will be roughly the same as a typical back yard landscaping project with a boxed play structure, according to Tony.

“We’re trying to put a car in every garage,” he said, alluding to Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign slogan. “In an average back yard in the Midwest, if a family’s installing some playground equipment, a typical landscape, and turf grass, the total cost is anywhere between $3,500 and $12,000. That’s a typical transformation, so that’s the price point that we’re shooting for.”

Tony’s organization, Abundant Playscapes, is partnering on this project with Nature Explore, which is an outgrowth of the Arbor Day Foundation. Nature Explore is a well-established organization that has built numerous playscapes at public venues like schools and parks, but this is the organization’s first project in residential playscapes.

These two organizations, along with another partner organization, Backyard Abundance, have chosen five families to participate in the program. First, the partner organizations run a design session with each of the families to create a design for each yard. They have the family fill out a 25-item questionnaire, and they walk through the yard with family members to get their thoughts on their present yard and their wishes for a renovation.

Nature Explore records the results of this meeting as the “before baseline” for its qualitative study on these projects. The next day, Tony creates a proposed design that the organizations and the family discuss in a meeting that night.

As of now, all five of these meetings have been completed and the designs have been finalized. You can read about the first, second, and third design sessions.

This is the design drawing for one of the family playscapes designed by Tony.

Now, the organizations and the families are preparing to implement the new designs. The next step is for Tony to give the family a bill of materials to purchase from a local home supply store. Then, the family buys these materials and brings them home.

On “build day,” the family members and some neighbors meet with Tony to implement the new design. Tony plans to provide as much guidance as is needed, but needs will vary widely. “A couple of dads among the five families have construction experience, but on the other end of the spectrum is a doctor who doesn’t know which end of a hammer to hold.”

Finally, Nature Explore will interview family members, and possibly neighbors as well, and complete a before-and-after qualitative study report on these projects. Tony and others will take the results of this report and reflect on their own experience to fine-tune their design-and-build process.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing this report and hearing from Tony on how his model is coming together for designing and building playspaces for families.

How about you – wouldn’t you love to have Tony and his partner organizations come by your house to help you design and build a playspace?

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