Tom Sawyer Island at Amelia Earhart Park
During the 1970s, the director for what was then the Metro-Dade Park and Recreation Department envisioned Amelia Earhart Park as an ideal location for a farm village where children could go to connect with nature and learn about animals. Nearby the farm village is a lake with a man-made island that the director wanted to turn into a "play-in-the-woods" experience.
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An Island Adventure is Created
The island was designed as Tom Sawyer’s Play Island, which is accessed via a long bridge from Amelia Earhart Park. Visitors are met with native cypress trees along the shoreline, boulders and oak trees further inland. Once the island was sculpted, a few pieces of playground equipment—climbers, swings and playground slides—were added.
After nearly 40 years of existence and a playground renovation in the late 90s, it came time for the County to update the play space with playground equipment that met new safety and accessibility standards. Karen Cheney, landscape architect at Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department, was assigned the project.
A Repurposed Playground
“When I got started on this project, I knew that I wanted to keep the theme of nature play,” explained Karen. “I worked closely with Nikki Hall, my Landscape Structures playground designer, and Rep Services, our local playground consultants to create a play space that would complement the surrounding environment, and fit within the space and budget.”
The playground design includes the net-based Netplex® play structure that is linked to a more traditional PlayBooster® “I was blown away by all the raw material that I had to work with.” Landscape Architect, Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department. The posts of both playground structures are custom printed to look like tree bark, and recycled wood-grain lumber panels add to the nature-inspired play experience. Custom oak leaf balance boards, mushroom steppers and a log balance beam enhance the nature play theme and deliver challenge disguised as fun. Even more, Smart Play®: Motion 2-5 provides age-appropriate adventures for young visitors so that entire families can spend hours exploring and playing on Tom Sawyer’s Island.
In addition to the play environment, Karen worked to upgrade the surrounding land into more usable space. The grade separation was renovated to be a concrete gravity wall that she envisioned as a balance beam for children as well as a resting area for visitors. The floor of the nearby shelter was replaced while the original structure was untouched to keep the living roof of Resurrection Ferns intact. And to ensure that the old-growth oak trees wouldn’t be harmed during the renovation, Karen teamed up with an arborist.
“We had a few serendipitous conditions here—the existing boulders and beautiful trees,” said Karen. “It all came together to gel into a repurposed playground that’s distinctive.”
Going Beyond Accessibility
“There’s a big difference between accessible and inclusive,” explained Karen. “And our goal was to make it inclusive.” To do so, Karen and Nikki created at-grade experiences to bring kids of all abilities together.
“What I love about Netplex is that a child using a mobility device can get to it, and depending on their upper body strength, they can participate in some of the climbing activities as well.”
The playground design also delivers a multisensory experience to help kids of all abilities build various developmental skills. Plus, the landscape design—natural plant materials, boulders, etc.—engages visitors’ visual, olfactory and tactile senses.
A Prescription for Nature Deficit
The new playground design on Tom Sawyer Island at Amelia Earhart Park opened in February 2015 to rave reviews. According to Karen, the playground is well-used and everyone is excited about the completed project. “People come on weekends to spend the day at Amelia Earhart Park, and the Island has become a real prominent feature once again,” she said. “The new playground equipment has given new life to the space.”
“I’ve been designing playgrounds for a long time,” Karen explained. “Place making is all about recognizing the history of the space, and you build from there. We focused on making this about nature play because we recognize that our kids really do have a nature deficiency. We hope the new playground, along with our existing recreation programming, will instill a love of nature to a new generation.”