The latest renovation at Dan Ryan Woods is complete, and Cook County officials encouraged children of all ages to take advantage of the new resource.
A ceremony celebrating the opening of a nature play area and other amenities near the northeast corner of 87th Street and Western Avenue was held July 31, with children trying out the new playground while officials praised it as yet another asset representing the transformation of the woods.
“I know these improvements are bringing new generations to the preserves, and I am very grateful,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “The forest preserves are in every part of Cook County. We are invested in every part of the county. The new great amenities here at Dan Ryan Woods reflect our commitment to ensuring that everyone throughout the county has access and opportunity to benefit from the 70,000 acres that make up our preserves. The Forest Preserves District of Cook County [FPDCC] prides itself on being a place that welcomes everyone.”
According to officials, the play area includes elements for climbing, making music and free play. Children played in a treehouse, walked across a balance beam and danced on a wooden platform that can be reached by netting on the opening day.
FPDCC Superintendent Arnold Randall said the space promotes free play and will also feature programming for all ages, including yoga classes, storytelling and campfires. A youth ambassador program will lead children’s activities based in adventure, creativity and citizen science.
The play area is part of a $3.5-million investment in the Dan Ryan Woods since 2013, with other improvements including the restoration of a pavilion that can be used for private parties; transitioning a maintenance building into a visitors center; constructing an outdoor classroom; building exercise stairs on a sledding hill next to the visitors center; repairing a limestone aqueduct; and adding signage that celebrated the woods being named a gateway site for the FPDCC.
Local residents also worked with county officials to relocate and re-dedicate a Chicago Council of Gold Star Mothers memorial next to the visitors center last November.
According to officials, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources provided funding.
According to Forest Preserve Foundation President and Executive Director Shelley Davis, whose organization seeks philanthropic donors, the National Recreation Foundation also provided valuable support.
“Our goals were really to help the forest preserves be more accessible and more welcoming to all,” Davis said. “And the purpose of the nature play is not only to support the play and exploration nature for little kids, but more importantly, all kids 6 years and up.”
Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore (4th), whose district includes the portion of the woods north of 87th Street, said his family has enjoyed picnics in the woods for 60 years.
A dog attack 20 years ago that left one woman dead and another critically injured made people fearful to visit the woods, he said, but he hopes the investments change its reputation.
Now, he said, it is a “beautiful place.”
“It had fallen into disrepair,” Moore said, “and a lot of people who live in the community, right here in Beverly, wouldn’t even come here. They were afraid to come here. They said … it was not pretty. It wasn’t attractive.”
Moore thanked Cook County Commissioner John Daley (11th), chairman of the Cook County finance committee and whose district includes the portion of the woods south of 87th Street, for investing in the woods.
Daley said “more improvements can and will be done.”
“The investments are going to be costly,” Daley said, “but they are going to be well worth it.”
State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th) joined state Rep. Fran Hurley (D-35th) and state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) at the ceremony. He said all three grew up near the woods, and he recalled the toboggan run that went out of use several years ago.
People associate forest preserves with the suburbs, Cunningham said, but he believes city residents should take advantage of them as well.
“There are plenty of opportunities for Chicagoans to use the forest preserves,” Cunningham said. “Dan Ryan Woods is a perfect example of that.”