A child plays on equipment in Grant Frontier Park designed to encourage free play and creativity in an urban environment on Nov. 5, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Before 2016, Grant Frontier Park was touted as a place where prospectors first discovered gold in the South Platte River near Denver. No one seemed to care. 

“I never saw anyone in the park,” Gordon Robertson, director of planning design and construction at Denver Parks and Recreation Department, said of the three-block long park that straddles the river at the edge of the Overland neighborhood

Denver set out to change that a decade before, partnering with the Greenway Foundation to create more than 100 miles of hiking and biking trails and more than 20 parks, all of them linked by a restored South Platte River. 

The river has become an example of how cities can use existing landscapes to create natural areas, parks and places for kids to explore. Replacing the plastic slides, turtles and jungle gyms with tree stumps and boulders still feels like a movement, and Colorado, full of adults who use its natural areas to play on the weekends, remains one of its leaders. Now visitors can find those parks near Denver’s poorest neighborhoods as well as its wealthiest, and all along the Front Range, including Fort Collins, Boulder and, more recently, Greeley, which just built a massive natural park in the eastern part of the city. 

But before Denver decided to rehabilitate the South Platte and use its natural wonder to create places for kids to play, it was used mostly as a way to move water from one point to another. Residents of the neighborhood near where the park was built didn’t even know there was a river there, Robertson said.

Robertson, however, thought there was gold in the native surroundings of Grant Frontier. The city constructed a secondary channel by taking out tons of soil and sculpting it to lead to the river and built a concrete jetty that restored access to the water and the park. The work coincided with work to restore the South Platte. 

The project even protected a 200-year-old cottonwood and surrounded it with boulders, a plaza and picnic area, and the city built some bridges to cross narrower sections of the Platte.

Robertson still remembers the day he went to check on the park after it re-opened in 2016. 

The South Platte River is seen from Grant-Frontier Park on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in South Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“Kids were all playing games along the river,” he said. “Parents were yelling at them to get out of the water. It was being used exactly as we had hoped. I was just overwhelmed. It fulfilled my hopes and dreams.” 

Robertson was already a champion of natural parks: Nearly 20 years ago, he began throwing catalogues for plastic parks equipment in the trash and telling manufacturers to do better. But he considers that day in 2016 a turning point. His vision seemed viable. 

“I can’t say I’d ever believed the river would be used that way,” he said. “But it was. That was an affirmation.”

Searching for places to explore

Adam Bienenstock, one of the leaders of the movement to convert playgrounds into natural areas, is friends with Richard Louv, who suggested kids were suffering from what he called “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in his groundbreaking book, “The Last Child in the Woods.”

Bienenstock operates his company under the same philosophy Louv proposed in his book: That being outdoors is crucial to a child’s development and that playing in the natural environment can ease attention disorders and depression in children. Bienenstock’s goal is to bring nature, and the opportunity it presents for unstructured exploration, back to kids.

Many cities, including Greeley, have used Bienenstock’s expertise to build natural playgrounds: He designed Greeley’s newest park and helped renovate another. 

“We have a lot of problems to solve,” Bienenstock said. “And connection to nature is the solution to a lot of these problems.” 

The pandemic magnified those problems, so much so that Children’s Hospital earlier this year declared a state of emergency for kids’ mental health, an alarm that made school districts hire more social workers and health care professionals than ever before. Some kids averaged as much as 75 hours of screen time a week, Bienenstock said, a statistic he calls “bonkers.” Adults felt it, too: It was no wonder that we so overcrowded our beloved places — state parks, national parks and wilderness areas all saw huge jumps — that some had to install a reservation system, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Brainard Lake Recreation Area and Hanging Lake. 

Bienenstock sounds old-fashioned when he talks about exploring nature around his house,  a freedom that few kids have today. But in his house, it was a requirement: His father, John, is a leading expert in immunology and was so concerned about Adam building up his resistance through biodiversity that he forbade the boy to wash his hands before dinner.

Robert Lee and Isabelle, 2, at Grant Frontier Park in Denver. “We live two blocks from here, so we’re in this park every day. We feel really lucky that we’ve got this whole park just literally in our backyard,” Lee said. “Seems like it’s kind of this hidden gem.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Bienenstock, the founder and CEO of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds in Canada, these days specializes in presentations, advocacy and training. The business also designs, manufactures and installs natural playgrounds. 

His company might install tree trunks for kids to climb on or hop on from one to the next. Not only are these natural, but the experience changes every time a child plays on them, Bienenstock said. 

“We didn’t build them a plastic hippo,” he said. “That plastic hippo will always be a hippo. But a few logs can be a hippo or a car or a parkour experience.”

It made sense, even perhaps back in the 1980s, to build playgrounds with plastic hippos because children then had more opportunity to connect with nature, play in streams and catch turtles in the woods. 

“Parks are for experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said. “We took away kids’ roaming places. Now you have to make people admit that their experience was totally different than their kids’. People are still just now realizing that.”

Bienenstock calls his parks “gateway experiences,” places that encourage kids to feel comfortable in the outdoors and eventually encourage them to go out on their own and, say, hike up Hanging Lake or climb their first 14er. The average age of those who visit national parks continues to go up, he said. 

He’s encouraged by the fact that Colorado smashed attendance records in all those outdoor places in 2020: That means more kids are visiting them. He is, after all, also worried about their future. 

“If we want them to care for our environment, and we desperately need them to,” he said, “they’d better have some experiences in it before they can do anything about it.”

A new place to play 

Until October, the field in east Greeley had the unfortunate honor of being overshadowed by the giant dinosaur waterslide in the Discovery Bay Waterpark across the street. But Justin Scharton had a lot of hope for the field, and now that the city built its latest park on it, he sees it as the cornerstone of an effort to change the lives of the nearby residents. 

“If they can’t get to nature, for socioeconomic factors or whatever,” said Scharton, superintendent of the culture, parks and recreation department for the city of Greeley, “we want to bring nature to them.”

In early October, the city opened a park, one of the first in Greeley to eschew jungle gyms and monkey bars for a more natural setting. There are bear caves, paths that wind throughout play stations and obstacles such as boulders and tree trunks. There is a slide, but it’s a concrete whoosh that acts as a reward of sorts when you climb to the top of the park’s steep hill. Take that, dinosaur. 

The still-unnamed park was enough to keep Karen Scopel, Greeley’s natural lands coordinator, out of retirement, even though she is (without being specific) close to retirement age. She’s never had a project like this one. 

“I’m having too much fun,” Scopel said. 

She hoped to be the first down the slide, in fact, but a city planner beat her to it. 

Becky Smith, Levi Smith, 4, and Arlie Smith, 1, try out a concrete slide at the new natural playground at East Greeley Natural Area on Saturday. The park is designed to encourage kids to use their imaginations. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Greeley spent about $1 million of its own money, in addition to nearly $1 million in grants and in-kind work, so Bienenstock could transform the field into an experience he raves about. 

City leaders call neighborhoods such as those surrounding the area “outdoor deserts,” in the same way they like to call places without access to grocery stores and the fresh fruits and vegetables they carry “food deserts.” 

These places, unsurprisingly, tend to be in the lower-income parts of a city. Discovery Bay was a small part of changing that, as it’s widely considered Greeley’s best pool, but it’s seasonal, and no one would consider it a natural area. 

Scharton admits east Greeley is underserved in many ways, and the residents, nearly 7,000 of them, were overlooked, he said. It is a low-income area where many blue-collar workers, Latinos and refugees live. But Scharton said the lack of green spaces, parks and other amenities have more to do with U.S. 85 and the difficulty of providing them across such a huge, isolating barrier. Still, he’s not here to give excuses. He’s here to talk about making it right. 

There are 2,500 households in the area, and yet the city struggles to connect with them. 

They’ve searched for neighborhood leaders and haven’t found them, mostly because there isn’t a cohesive group other than the Boys and Girls Club. There are no churches, and the schools were disrupted by COVID-19 and haven’t recovered. Yet he’s somewhat encouraged about the engagement residents showed for the area, even if they had to go door-to-door to get it. 

Residents asked for a place to walk and ride their bikes, and that could easily be served by the new park: The city will also install a soft-surface trail that winds around the edges. 

“It will be a 10-minute walk to nature for these residents,” he said. 

This is what excites Scopel about the project. She knows some may be nervous, or even afraid, of the outdoors because of their unfamiliarity with what’s out there. Others may not feel welcome, like it’s not for them. Scopel said she hopes the new park changes that with a gentle introduction to what nature can offer. The city sent a signal to residents that this park would be different when she brought sticks and sand to community meetings and encouraged kids to play with them. 

“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to get people out into nature and appreciate it and enjoy it,” she said. “I want people to be comfortable with it.” 

A boy who lives in the neighborhood scrambles over boulders at the new natural playground at East Greeley Natural Area on Saturday. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s there for them, but do they know that? 

Still, you can build a place like that, but once it’s done, residents need to use it. 

Greeley had good luck with Bienenstock’s redesign of Woodbriar Park in west Greeley (a 15-minute drive from the new park in east Greeley), which reopened in 2018 with an all-natural playground and a water feature of sorts that uses rocks to draw people to a restored Cottonwood Creek. But the neighborhood surrounding that park is full of middle-class residents with moderate incomes who’d lived in Colorado and used its amenities for years. 

Fabiola Padilla Vega represents the other half.

Padilla Vega works for the city as its healthy neighborhood coordinator, and part of her job is to ensure residents are comfortable and, more importantly, familiar with the amenities the city has for them. She takes a mobile recreation trailer and plays outdoor games with the neighbors (not just sports) to attract them to nearby parks and natural areas and show them they are welcome. That message is hard to deliver, thanks to cultural gaps and language barriers that go beyond Spanish, which she speaks.

“I just don’t think they know what’s going on,” Padilla Vega said. “I’m trying to communicate that they can use it.”

This is more of a problem in Greeley, a diverse town with lower incomes than, say, Loveland or Fort Collins. But Denver sees this quite a bit as well, said Robertson, the Denver Parks and Rec parks planner. Even a view of the mountains doesn’t ease kids’ fears when they haven’t had the opportunity to visit them. 

“We do have kids who see the mountains and consider them a very faraway place,” Robertson said. “It’s scary to them.”

Many organizations are trying to overcome those fears. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a program that allows families to check out a backpack full of resources, including trail guides, binoculars and a free state park pass from the library. 

Hundreds of libraries across Colorado participate in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Check Out State Parks program that allows patrons to borrow a backpack full of resources, including trail guides, binoculars and a free state park pass. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“We’ve focused on inclusion in the state,” said Bridget Kochel, a CPW spokeswoman. “We want people to experience our state parks no matter who they are.” 

Padilla Vega anticipates she will have to show the residents the soft trail and what it’s for, and she may have to skip along the tree trunks and show the kids how to play. She gets it: She didn’t hike growing up either. 

“I grew up in a Hispanic household, and trails aren’t something we used,” she said. “We weren’t even sure who was allowed to use them. We didn’t think they were for us.”

She went to college and was exposed more to recreational opportunities, but it took a long time for her to feel comfortable in the outdoors: Her job with the city helped as well.

“Once this area is up and running, my goal is to explain what is going on,” Padilla Vega said. “I hope that eventually they will gravitate to the area on their own the more exposed they are to it.”

Scharton understands these challenges and hopes the city can overcome them with the unique design of the park. Residents of the area may be afraid to venture out and try the trail. They may be afraid of creatures such as coyotes and bears. (And before you laugh, how many suburbanites do you know who are nervous about mountain lions in, say, a natural area such as Horsetooth Rock in Fort Collins?)

“I don’t want it to look like something I’m familiar with,” he said of the new park in east Greeley. “I don’t want to put a Colorado stamp on it. I hope they can get the message that it’s here when you are ready for it.”

The residents need to take ownership of it, not the city, and shape it to meet their needs. The first step will take place next spring, when they pick a name for it, something that will signal to them that it is their park. 

Kids test out new play structures at Paco Sanchez Park in Denver in 2018, when the first phase of the “reimagining play” rebuild opened. (Evan Semón Photography, Denver Parks and Recreation)

Park equipment perceived as safe may be making kids more accident prone

There are parks that use unique designs that fulfill many of the same missions as the outdoor-themed parks without being modeled after them. Perhaps the best example of this is Paco Sanchez Park in Denver. 

“We wanted to do something no one’s ever seen before,” said Gordon Robertson, director of planning design and construction at Denver Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s not nature. But the cool thing is there are 1,000 ways to play on it.” 

The park is now one of Denver’s most popular and solves one of the problems Robertson saw in the plastic park equipment: More than a decade ago, a study found that children in the U.S. were more accident prone because they played on structured, safe equipment that didn’t develop the kind of critical thinking skills that helps us avoid crashes, Robertson said. 

“The experience in this playground is left up to the child,” Robertson said. “The next move isn’t so obvious. A bit more imagination is required.” 

The playground is across Federal Boulevard from Sun Valley, considered the poorest neighborhood in Denver. Robertson and others met with community leaders and asked them if they wanted the unusual playground, and they said yes. Robertson wanted to put the structure underserved area to give them something for their kids and a source of pride. 

“Now people from everywhere drive to it,” he said. “They get visitors from neighborhoods all Denver.”

Is it signage or parkour? Kids jump on equipment at Paco Sanchez Park that functions both as a sign and a place to challenge balance and scrambling skills in 2017. (Denver Parks and Recreation)

Dan England

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @DanEngland