Playscape to encourage discovery and outdoor play

Coming in 2020, the River Ramble will be a 1.5-acre natural playscape at St. Patrick’s County Park in South Bend. The goal of the project is to provide a family destination that encourages outdoor free-play for children.

To date three-quarters of the funds for the $500,000 project have been raised. The Friends of St. Joseph County Parks and the County Parks staff are rounding the final corner of the fundraising with the launch of a campaign on Oct. 1 to raise $50,000 in 50 days.

If that goal is reached, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority’s “CreatINg Places” program will match it with a $50,000 grant, but only if the goal is reached. Donations of $25 and up are welcome on the online site: patronicity.com/RiverRamble through Nov. 21.

“We are excited about the River Ramble and the experiences it will provide for children, and now the race is on to meet the funding goal and garner the grant,” says County Parks director, Evie Kirkwood. “We are confident the community will support the project and get us there.”

Over the last several months, St. Joseph County Parks staff met with families and early-learner educators to refine ideas for the River Ramble. Lehman and Lehman, Inc. of Mishawaka, assembled the ideas into a conceptual design that will guide the project construction.

Unlike a traditional playground built largely of plastic and metal, the River Ramble will include rocks, logs, ropes, a water feature, and open space to encourage creative play. The play features will be themed on the St. Joseph River, a natural resource that defines the greater South Bend community. Simple interpretive signs at each play area will help children understand the connection to the river. Children will be able to:

  • create their own mini-river at the water pump and sand play area

  • climb a giant fishing net

  • build an eagle's nest

  • wander across a bridge over a mini-wetland

  • paddle a make-believe boat... and more.

Features will be linked with an accessible path inviting children of all abilities to play. Families can gather in the pavilion, share a bench, or hang out in hammocks.

County Park staff was inspired to do the project based on the growing body of research that indicates active “free play” in natural settings boosts intellectual, emotional and social health. It provides an outlet for physical activity, which is often lacking in children who spend an average of 7 hours a day* in front of a screen. (*according to the CDC). Evidence shows that outdoor play helps kids be better problem solvers and boosts self-confidence.

In addition, a “natural playground” was tied for the number one requested amenity during public input for St. Joseph County Parks Master Plan 2019-2023. The closest natural playscape of similar size and scope is in Kalamazoo.

Granger Community Church has a natural play area and County Park staff assisted the pre-school team there with some of the early planning.

The River Ramble will be located adjacent to the existing barn-themed traditional playground at St. Patrick’s County Park. A central pavilion can be used by adults to “watch” from afar, or by the County Parks’ interpretive and leisure services staff to host programs for children.

Currently, a portable toilet services the adjacent barn-themed playground, but it will be replaced by a sustainable composting toilet that uses a solar-powered fan for ventilation.

While most of the work will be done in early 2020, some work has already begun. A few trees were cleared to create a vista to the wetland and river below, and late in October there is a workday for the Young Professionals Network of the South Bend Regional Chamber to clear invasive species and add native plants in the small wooded area incorporated in the PlayScape.

Major partners for the project include Visit South Bend Mishawaka and a St. Joseph County TEAM Grant. The Community Foundation of St. Joseph County is providing a matching grant as well. Other support has come from the Friends of Bendix Woods and Spicer Lake, NIPSCO and the University of Notre Dame as well as numerous individual donors.

Contributions to the River Ramble can also be made by mail to the Friends of St. Joseph County Parks, 50651 Laurel Rd, South Bend, IN 46637. Those received by the November 21 deadline will be eligible to count toward the match.

More information about the project can be found at: sjcparks.org/RiverRamble Status updates on the funding progress can be found on the St. Joseph County Parks Facebook page.

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