Musical Playscape For Children Visiting Iowa Women's Prison

November 2018

A children’s garden at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville is now completed thanks to the efforts of students from Iowa State University, Play Design Company ABCreative and Percussion Play.

Project Overview

The Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville partnered with students from Iowa University's College of Design to design and build a musical children's garden within the prison grounds. The project aimed to create a healthy environment in which prison visits could take place and create a therapeutic outdoor space where incarcerated mothers could connect with their children to help maintain or strengthen the bond between them.

Prison visits are obviously very important for maintaining strong bonds between mothers and children and also for the mother's successful reentry into routine life on the outside. Nevertheless, temporary caregivers would often forgo visits because the prison would be too scary for many of the children especially as, on visiting days, the indoor play area could become overcrowded and noisy. The outdoor visiting space featured only a small, fenced-in concrete space with a few tables which wasn’t conducive to positive visits for children and their mothers.

The larger and redesigned children’s music garden improves the prison visiting experience for children by offering positive distractions from the surrounding prison with fun, active play facilities, sensory features and contact with nature.

Working closely with the offenders, correctional staff, visitors and children, the project team set out to design a garden grounded in therapeutic and biophilic design principles - providing interactive play facilities and activities that would bring mothers and children of all ages closer together. “We came here multiple times, first doing collages with the women so we could get an idea of what they needed,” said Saranya Panchaseelan, a third-year graduate student in architecture from Bangalore, India. “We built models and came to the prison on visiting day so the kids could help us plan the garden.”


Construction of the proposed design began in April and was completed last month. The garden is approximately one-third of an acre and opens out from the pre-existing outdoor visiting area. The musical garden now supports physical activity and mental rehabilitation and the design includes; a natural playscape, an open lawn to allow for social interaction plus unplanned activities such as yard games, a conversation grove and a walking/tricycle path. The natural playscape provides opportunities for play between mothers and their children and includes several play structures as well as the interactive outdoor musical instruments from Percussion Play. The instruments selected included both a small and large Babel Drum, bright colourful Rainbow Sambas, Cadenza Outdoor Xylophone as well as the My Tunes panel donated by Percussion Play and ABCreative earlier this year. The My Tunes panel is a set of bespoke anodised aluminium chimes with notes arranged sequentially so that by simply striking the notes the “Star Spangled Banner” is played! This was the first piece to be donated to the project.

The children's garden provides pockets of native vegetation that attract birds and butterflies, mimicking the native Iowa landscape. The ambient noise from the rustling aspen leaves offers a natural distraction and allows for more personal conversation.

The required fence was the most challenging aspect of this project. Multiple design iterations led to a combination of wood and metal panels complete with chalkboards. The "backyard" feel is a great improvement over the chain-link and razor-wire fence perimeters that define the enclosure throughout the institution. Chalkboards encourage people to interact with the fence, while small apertures in the enclosure allow the women an opportunity to show their families where they live and work while inside the prison building.

ICIW Warden Sheryl Dahm says the children’s garden will provide a safe respite for children to bond with their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Many of the children are driven to the prison from hours away. “Kids will be able to run outside after being in a car and it will allow moms and grandmas to have conversations out where there’s fresh air,” Dahm said. “It’s much better than sitting around in a closed environment.”

“For a brief period of time, those kids can have mom time.”

About Iowa Correctional Institution for Women

The Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) is located in Mitchellville, a small town 20 miles east of Des Moines, Iowa. Over the past 35 years, the prison population at ICIW grew from 56 (1983) to 740 (2017). ICIW is a medium to minimum security facility that provides educational and vocational training opportunities for women offenders to successfully re-enter into the community. Over 60% of them are mothers.

At this moment, over 1.7 million children in the US are victims of parental incarceration, which induces trauma on children and leads to stress and insecurity. Prison visitation has been shown to improve offender health, and reduce offender misconduct and lower recidivism.