Opinion: Iowa City needs rooftop playgrounds

Imagine yourself at five years old, having a blast at your favorite park alongside friends and peers. Maybe you’re climbing the jungle gym, soaring high on the swing set, or traversing the perilous monkey bars. Perhaps these amenities were available in your neighborhood, outside your elementary school, or adjacent to the community pool—over the fence and beyond the baseball fields. We all had favorite spots, and they surely hold cherished places in our hearts, even as we busy adults have long since traded in the slide for the highway commute, the sandbox for the cubicle.

Many of you reading this post likely have children, perhaps young ones who require childcare, and want them to have those same carefree experiences that foster physical, mental, and social growth. But maybe childcare slots in your area are hard to find, especially ones offering ample play and exploration spaces. This shortage has not only hampered Johnson County residents and Iowans around the state, but also families in need of high-quality childcare across the nation.

Throughout the United States, one of the biggest barriers to increasing the number of on-site daycare centers is the lack of available physical locations. A medium sized business in your average Midwest community, for instance, rarely risks leasing out unused portions of their property for child care. They fear the burdens of management, maintenance and—most importantly—any proposition that doesn’t necessarily yield profits. How might we solve this dilemma?

New Horizon Academy, Des Moines, rooftop playground (image credit: urbandsm.com)

Enter: rooftop daycare centers with playgrounds. In 2018 New Horizon Academy opened a three-story location at SW 9th St. in downtown Des Moines. The facility can accommodate 160 children ages infant through pre-school. The academy’s director, Jeannine Laughlin, celebrated the safety of her rooftop playground in an interview with WHO 13:

“There is a six-foot fence up there and they really can’t go anywhere. The fence is high enough they can’t get over it or around it. All of our doors and exits have a buzzing sound or a beeping sound so we do know when those have been opened.” 

New Horizon Academy, Des Moines, rooftop playground (image credit: urbandsm.com)

Moreover, New Horizon Academy has added an ingredient into the popular STEM curriculum prioritized in recent years by the American educational system from preschool into K-12. Known as STEAM, this approach that Laughlin champions incorporates the arts into the conventional fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. During the same interview with WHO 13, Laughlin shared an example of this marriage between the arts and sciences:

“Last week we did a bubble activity where the children mixed the bubble solution, and then blew bubbles with straws. Then they added food coloring to the bubbles, and then they took paper and they made bubble prints with the paper.”

Perhaps Iowa City should consider implementing similarly creative solutions to combat its scarcity of childcare centers. Many parking garages—including Tower Place, Harrison Street, Capitol Street, Dubuque Street, and several throughout the University—exist around Iowa City that could house small rooftop daycare facilities complete with well-lit, open air play areas.

Towns such as ours are often land-locked with little room to grow outward, particularly near places of employment in the urban center. Instead, why not grow UPWARD and utilize preexisting infrastructure? It would be a wonderful opportunity to nurture collaboration between the city, non-profits, developers, and businesses. Plus, a rooftop daycare center would be safe, as visitors would need badge clearance to access the upper level.

A notable model is the YMCA childcare complex atop the Gastown parkade in Vancouver, Canada. Completed in the spring of 2021, this development includes two rooftop centers connected by a footbridge. Iowa City—let’s consider something similar if even on a smaller scale. Please see the photos below for inspiration…

Image credit: Daily Hive
Image credit: Daily Hive
Image credit: Daily Hive




Laurie Nash, Youth & Family Services Manager, Johnson County, IA

featured image source: https://www.leaguecenter.org/blog/2015/7/7/time-to-play-jftn-rooftop-reopens