The magical new world of Owen’s Playground

Parks staff and volunteers mount 'lollitops' in preparation for Owen's Playground's grand opening on Saturday.

The adults are scattered across the playground, no kids to be found.

Terry Lande posts up on the oodle swing to take a call.

Ann and Stacy are lounging on the we-saw.

In the sand pit, two parks staff are digging for bones.

“We just found out they hid fossils, and we want to see how long it goes,” volunteer coordinator Emily Helgeson explains, as she unearths the vertebrae of a prehistoric something.

A stegosaurus, she concludes.

They’re taking a well-deserved break after weeks of prepping for Saturday’s big debut.

Traditionally, playgrounds are the territory of the juice box brigade and their strollered vassals. Mom and Johnny, Dad and Sue. Maybe Grandma, if she behaves. They’re mulched and graveled, plastic slides and metal monkey bars, segregated from trees, segregated from plants. Sterile clubhouses subjugate nature.

But at Owen’s Playground, the island’s first all-inclusive playground, nature is equal to play.

“We’ve brought in elements that represent the Pacific Northwest,” project founder Stacy Marshall explained.

Boulders from the Cascade foothills offer gentle scrambling. Local cedar forms circular seats. There’s also a hand-crank waterfall that someone in a wheelchair could reach and a madrone play hut for the child who needs to retreat.

On the east end, the scenery gets funky. Ann Lovejoy’s designed a plant petting zoo with strange shrubby things that look like they came from Mars; smoke bushes and conifers that resemble feathers or the hat from Dr. Seuss. The collection is non-toxic, low-pollen and anti-seizure.

“When you choose plants for an environment like this you have to be really thoughtful about people with compromised immune systems, for instance,” Lovejoy said.

Also, careful about fragrance and careful about the deer who press their noses up against the temporary fence.

“Everyday there’s a mother and three babies, just waiting for the moment…”

Deer or human, there’s lots of prime munching material in the sensory garden, where cherry tomatoes cozy up to calendula and kale snuggles with strawberries. It’s schoolchildren feng shui: Lovejoy put out a call to junior sowers, who reared plants from seeds and decided where they should sprout.

Greenery is not the playground’s only functional aesthetic. There’s a peace pole with a giant pinwheel, a shady “lollitop” forest of 14-foot flowers and the Caregiver, a bronze lady whose hat holds up sun sails and whose carved wood dress has a nook for hiding. Fundraising for the folkloric piece, based on a Northwest Coastal legend, is ongoing.

With its smooth rubber surfacing and adaptive features, Owen’s Playground is built to be accessible. But it’s not just a playground for disabled kids.

“It’s really been set up for everybody,” Marshall says of the space inspired by her son, who passed away from complications associated with cerebral palsy at age 6. “Whether you’re talking about aging, whether you’re talking about kids on the autism spectrum.”

“We live in such a beautiful place, but a lot of people can’t get out into nature as we know it,” chimes in Sarah Brandt-Erichsen, Marshall’s fundraising partner. “So having the pieces that we have here, the rock and the gardens and the sculptures, it’s all been pretty magical to bring together. It’s kind of like bringing a little bit of the Northwest experience into people’s worlds.

“They are doing huge strides in trying to make all of our parks more accessible, but the reality is for some people, like Owen was, and on some days, like my son is, this would be about as far as he could get, so it’s pretty awesome.”