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One of my favorite places to go for a walk is the Spruce Plot at the Morton Arboretum, outside Chicago. There is a perceptible hush and temperature drop on entering the forest, as though you’ve been transported to another time and place. A grid of towering spruces crowds out the sky. Dim light filters through the gaps among the branches and falls in fractured patterns on the soft needles underfoot.

And capturing this same feeling, a sense of mystery and wonderment, in its parks, gardens, urban master plans, and playgrounds, may be why Hitchcock Design Group has drawn so much recognition from the ASLA. From a President’s Award of Excellence from the Illinois Chapter for the Morton Arboretum Children’s Adventure Garden in 2006 to a Honor Award for Hawks Hollow Nature Playground at Peck Farm Park in 2014, the firm’s list of award-winning projects is impressive. Their nature playgrounds are places to get lost, take risks, see frogs, discover hidden coves and treehouses, and learn about plant science and stewardship.

Having recently visited the Morton Arboretum Children’s Adventure Garden with my son, I can tell you the ASLA recognition is well deserved. Unfolding like a kingdom from Middle-earth, the playground is accessed through an arched pergola, where carved wooden gnomes greet children and parents. After first meeting the gnomes, they become a sort of running game, a Where’s Waldo of Scandinavian folklore, which gives children an immediate goal and sense of purpose, always a good thing with the two-year-old set. Further along is a mesmerizing sculptural fountain which appears to defy physics. A round spinning stone, coated in a translucent sheen of running water, hovers above a concave base. An absolute sensory delight, the fountain enthralled my son for nearly fifteen minutes as he explored the wet polished surface with his fingertips.

Courtesy Hitchcock Design Group

All of this, though, is just prelude to the real playground. A paved trail leads past dozens of sensory learning games, where children can play with toy animals in miniature ecosystems, explore the parts and function of flowers, and get soaked under a ten-foot tall, hand-operated watering can. My son’s personal favorite is a game in which you drop acrylic balls, simulated acorns, down something that looks the Plinko board on The Price is Right. The acorns bounce through a grid of rungs before reaching their reproductive fate. Will they be carried away by a squirrel, smashed under the boot of a careless traveler, subsumed by agricultural production, or embed themselves in the dirt and take root? As fun as it is simply watching fate unfold in the path of the ball, there is a wonderful lesson in tree provenance and environmental conservation as well.

A few hundred feet up a stone trail and a lovely pond of lily pads and sedge spreads out before us. There, we knelt down for an up close view of frisky grasshoppers, surfacing turtles, and the speckled brown backs of frogs. We took a few minutes to talk about the aquatic wildlife before finding our way to a nice picnic area, with a neatly labeled vegetable garden and a farm pump where we could fill up our water bottles. But we weren’t done. The next half hour was spent exploring the unfolding tunnels, slides, and swinging timber bridges of a massive wooden play structure. This was, for me, a moment of fatherly pride, as I let go of my son’s hand above a fall zone higher than a foot or two (for the first time), letting him step gingerly across a rope bridge on his own. He turned around and smiled, and an older woman laughed wisely and said, “It looks like he doesn’t need any help, Dad.”

Courtesy Hitchcock Design Group

One of the coolest things about the playground is the way its picaresque layout and sightlines conceal what is up the next hill or around the next turn, creating suspense in what is left unrevealed. At some point, we stumbled upon a charming A-frame play house where adults were forbidden. So as not to break the rules, I appropriately stopped at the door. This was a kid’s party, and I was not invited. Good secondhand sources report that it is was “super fun.” Just a short distance away, a few feet off the ground and oriented laterally, was a forty-foot-long web-like rope climber. Here, my son got a little scared. Some older boys and girls were spidering across the netting on all fours, but W preferred a chaperoned trip, and the design made either approach possible.

Around noon we arrived at the coup de grace, a fifty-foot high tree fort overlooking the playground below. With the cool scent of pine in the air, we climbed a series of platforms hidden among the trees. Just below the highest lookout, the route led to a suspended tunnel formed by entwined rope and leaving an opening for children to enter before climbing to the top. As someone with a paralyzing fear of heights, I questioned whether my son would go for this. To my surprise, he made the trip without hesitation, emerging on a round parapet with a rogue smile.

Courtesy Hitchcock Design Group

Hitchcock Design Group, of course, has other playgrounds that are just as full of adventure and mystery. Mt. Greenwood Park in Chicago integrates public art and interactive sculpture in an accessible, topographical play environment that is home to a multi-age therapeutic recreation program. The main walkway spirals out of the ground, leading to a custom-built 15-foot chime tower equipped with xylophones and other instruments created by an acoustical designer. Then there’s the master plan for Hawks Hollow Nature Playground at Peck Farm Park. Referencing the bird habitat found in the broader park’s restored tallgrass prairie, the design features several immersive elements focused on birds of prey. Visitors will find an interpretive area for feather study, a wading area where children can create mud art, and a stage where families can attempt songbird karaoke with simple orchestral instruments.

In a recent phone interview, Principal Andy Howard said he is particularly excited about Bison’s Bluff, a new playground now being built in Schaumburg, Illinois, scheduled to open on Earth Day. Designed to reflect native Illinois’ tallgrass prairie and oak savanna, the play environment will include a prominent bison sculpture, a climbing wall, several glass-and-fiber-reinforced concrete honeybee structures, and a series of adventure tree houses connected by tunnel bridges and a rope walk. From a design perspective, the intentional focus on botanically specific flora and fauna makes good sense. In an era defined by digital obsession, children need more opportunities to deepen their vocabulary about the natural world that surrounds them: names to give real meaning to the flood of information coming in from their senses.

Courtesy Hitchcock Design Group

And if Hitchcock Design Group’s previous work is any indication, I’m sure there will be plenty of surprises that can only be appreciated at the site level. I’m excited to check it out. Maybe on the next trip to Ikea. We’ll get some Swedish pancakes for breakfast and make a day of it.