11-11-20 | Department

Go BIG at Bellaboo's

Pirate Themed Play Space in Lake County, Indiana
by Eric Hornig, Hitchcock Design Group

When Bellaboo's Play and Discovery Center opened in Lake County, Indiana, Landscape Architecture firm Hitchcock Design Group knew an outdoor area was a necessary addition to the children's learning facility. Through funding and years of design and construction phases, a 10-acre play garden named Bellaboo's Imagination Garden, or BIG, was created, featuring Buccanoo Bay, a pirate themed play space with a 60' long pirate ship.
A treasure island area features waterplay elements including a shotcrete stream, waterfall, squirting treasure chests and a spraying pelican which empties into a waterway of channels.
An 8' tall and 40' long whale slide adds to the theme of the new imaginative play garden as it "swims" through the poured-in-place rubber safety surfacing.

Fifteen years ago, Lake County Parks started down a path to find new ways to serve Indiana's youngest residents. Northwest Indiana needed a facility designed with kids ages nine and under in mind-it needed to be accessible year-round, it needed to be safe and appropriate for kids of all abilities, and it needed to encapsulate the joy, curiosity, and wonder of a park. After five years of planning and construction by Landscape Architecture firm Hitchcock Design Group, Bellaboo's Play and Discovery Center opened its doors in September of 2009. This one-of-a-kind facility allows kids to explore at their own pace through nearly a dozen different playrooms designed just for them. Daily programs invite kids to learn about cooking, art, reading, and cooperation (all disguised as play, of course), and for 10 years, hundreds of thousands of families have come to Bellaboo's to move, stretch, and discover.

From that very first day, the plans to take Bellaboo's outside were always there. Within the first few years, an outdoor Dino Dig was added for kids to explore in the sand and search for dinosaur bones and fossils; along with an area of climbing boulders, teeter-totters, and open spaces to run and play. Shortly thereafter we (literally) got our hands dirty and dug up a garden to teach kids about grown food. Pedal carts were not far behind.
As a resource in the Lake County Parks playbook, Bellaboo's has been great at serving families in Northwest Indiana and beyond. And while these additions to the outside were great, there still was a disparity between what was happening outside and the completely immersive and totally engaging indoor facility. If Bellaboo's was going to grow, we needed to toss out the original plans for outside and go BIG. After receiving funding from a general operations bond in 2016, and nearly a decade of work, the greatest improvement to Bellaboo's Play & Discovery Center was finally realized, when Bellaboo's Imagination Garden (or BIG as we've come to call it) finally opened late this summer.

What is BIG? Well, it is big! Over 10 acres of imaginative play gardens give kids lots of room to run, jump, skip, and splash. The first phase of the garden set a course for adventure with "Buccanoo Bay." This garden area showcases a massive, custom-built, 60' long pirate ship, complete with planks to walk, ropes to climb, poop decks to scrub, and secret cabins to hide out in. The surrounding soft poured-in-place surface is designed to look like the ship is actually sailing through the sea. Kids visiting can hop along jellyfish over to the 8' tall, 40' long, whale slide in addition to building sandcastles, sliding down family-sized slides and bouncing around in little lifeboats. A creative shotcrete stream runs throughout the garden, inviting children (and adults!) to kick off their shoes and get their toes wet. The waterfall that starts under the train bridge creates a nice ambient noise to go along with the squeals of delight as kids dam up the waterway, jump across steppingstones, or just plop down in the small pond at the culmination of the stream. Beyond more water play awaits visitors with bubbling fountains, squirting treasure chests and a spraying pelican perched atop a cave. Throughout the treasure island area, kids can find hidden treasures imbedded in cave walls, work together to move a capstan and manipulate water movement with a variety of runnels.

The entire space is lush with not just theming, but nearly six thousand perennial plants, trees, shrubs, and a large lawn to run in. The local soccer center has already come to use the great back lawn to offer a new skills class. Near the entrance, a small berm creates seating facing a stage that is used for unofficial kid performances every day, and more official pop-up nature programs and animal encounters.

Bellaboo's Imagination Garden, while still in its infancy, is a major improvement on Bellaboo's Play & Discovery Center and a massive asset not just to the Lake County Park Department, but the community as a whole. As parent concerns over safety and risky behavior increase, the need for a playful outdoor space, fully fenced and designed especially for young children has become imperative. BIG allows kids to take risks - to climb big hills, get comfortable in water, manipulate rocks and sticks, and get really dirty - in a safe space that helps parents feel comfortable and secure. The garden offers a quiet and tranquil green space (right next to the expressway, no less) while still keeping joy and imagination at its heart. With space (and plans) still to grow, Bellaboo's Imagination Garden is off to a BIG new start!


Sign up for
LAWeekly newsletter. Get exclusive content today.