Hoose Elementary School set to unveil new natural play park

By Ken Keenan for Chronicle Media

Some of the schoolkids were enlisted to help design the fish for the mosaic river. (Photo by Jack McCarthy/Chronicle Media)

What was previously an average, ordinary playground on the grounds of Celene Hoose Elementary School, in Normal, has undergone a rather remarkable transformation.

Set to be officially unveiled during a public grand opening on Oct. 7, the sprawling, new Ilse and Charles Jobson Natural Play Park is the brainchild of Charlie Jobson, a hedge fund founder and investor who provided McLean County Unit School District 5 with more than $5 million to finance the project. Jobson was raised in Normal and attended Hoose Elementary as a child.

Working with project manager Adam Bienstock, founder of Bienstock Natural Playgrounds — an international team of designers, landscapers, architects, construction experts, educators and others that constructs outdoor play spaces intended to connect children with nature — as well as noted Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong, Jobson saw his original idea for a natural play space become reality.

“Through Charlie Jobson’s generosity, we were able to bring this to life, with the collaboration of so many people,” said Dayna Brown, Unit 5 Director of Communications and Community Relations. “Charlie grew up in Normal and wanted to give something back to the community, and at the same time, honor his parents (the late Ilse and Charles). He wanted our students and community to have an incredible experience, so he made sure that nothing was left off the list.”

The 12-acre park includes a swing garden, a snail-shaped mound, a beaver lodge, wooden rabbits, stone turtles, an alphabet labyrinth, an orchard featuring a variety of different trees, winding pathways and hilly areas, an outdoor amphitheater, a stone-based, mosaic river with fish designed by schoolchildren and more.

“It’s not a traditional playground,” Brown said. “There’s so much to it … some really nice touches. The beaver lodge literally looks like wood gnawed off by a beaver. Charlie made it clear he wanted kids to explore and engage with nature, and build curiosity. Kids will have to use their imagination at this playground, and there’s so many opportunities to do so.”

Some of the schoolkids got a head start in that area when they were enlisted to help design the fish for the mosaic river — and perhaps a sense of ownership along the way.

“As a school district, having the students involved was crucial, and Charlie thought that was important as well,” Brown said. “It’s wonderful when the kids see that they played a role in helping create part of the park.”

Added Brown: “What makes this interesting, it is a school playground, to be used by students in school during the day. But after school, and on the weekends, it becomes this incredible community resource. It really is for the community, but we certainly hope other people come and explore this beautiful park — as long as it’s not during school hours.”

Kids of all ages will have an opportunity to experience the park for the first time during the grand opening on Oct. 7.

“It’s just such an amazing piece of beauty,” Brown said. “We’re very grateful for Charlie Jobson’s gift, and excited for the kids and community to enjoy the park.”