There’s no better combo than a splash pad and playground. Add a covered wagon, wildflower garden and maze of fake animal tracks, and your kid will really be a happy camper. Get ready because you’ll find all of that and more at the new Rita (Fredenhagen) and John Harvard Early Learning Playscape. The attraction for ages 2-7 just opened in Naper Settlement, Naperville’s outdoor living-history museum that’s all about the pioneer days.
Pump Up the Water Fun
The main attraction is the splash pad, which you’ll find in the shadow of a real-sized covered wagon (one of the playscape’s many charming nods to early settlers and pioneer history). The entire area, particularly the splash pad, is thoughtfully designed for younger kids and those with a broad spectrum of capabilities. No ginormous geysers or bucket dumps here — the splish-splashing is tame and all in good, gentle fun.
In a contained area, you can enjoy what feels like a big sprinkler party. Kids maneuver mini cannons to spray water, while ground jets shoot water skyward. There’s even a re-creation of an old-fashioned pump; jiggle the handle to send water streaming down a chute, and fill cups and bowls along the way.
Play & Learn
There’s plenty more to do after you’re all splashed out. A re-creation of a pioneer village — complete with a trading post stocked with fake food — sits beside the sprayground. Climb to the top of the fort-like play structure and take the winding tube slide down. Or camp out on top and peer through a periscope or telescope to spy on what’s happening below.
Naper Settlement is an educational attraction aimed at showing kids what life was like back in the 19th century. The same spirit is alive at the playscape, where you can follow animal tracks embedded in the concrete; there are seven different kids of animal tracks (plus wagon and human tracks!) and the fun is guessing which is which. Next to the slide they’ve built a smaller-scale replica of Fort Payne, a lookout center that was built during the Black Hawk War of 1832 and sat where downtown Naperville is located today. Even at the trading post there are lessons to be learned, as a panel points out what type of goods (metal tools, blankets, beads) were swapped during that time.
While You’re There
The fact that the playscape is just one part of a 12-acre living-history museum — where costumed interpreters roam, tell stories, and demonstrate skills like blacksmithing and weaving — makes this spot worth the drive. (From Chicago it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get to Naperville.) The Settlement’s quiet, uncrowded paths lead you on a journey into historic homes and buildings, including a one-room school house, log cabin, print shop, chapel and mansion. Interpreters have obvious passion for sharing what they know about this time in history, and they tailor their talks so they’re age-appropriate and exciting for just about anybody they meet.
If you’re looking for a day of play in what feels like the colorful pages of a history book, this is a great place to go. Enjoy!
The Playscape is open during regular Summer Season hours, from April 1-October 31: Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. ; Sun., 1-4 p.m. (Closed Mon.)
Entrance into the Playscape is included in your museum admission: $12/adult; $10/senior (62+); $8/youth (4-12). Those under 4 years, Naperville residents and Naperville Heritage Society Members are free.
What have you heard about this awesome new spot? Let us know in the Comments!
— Kelly Aiglon