Hillsboro meets Oro, the friendly GIANT playground

Oro the big friendly forest giant, Earthscape’s newest — and biggest — playground structure to date, is now resting lazily in Hillsboro, Oregon, belly down in the grass, their pensive face cradled in hand. Oro’s back legs are bent upright into tower formations while the left arm stretches out, palm open to the sky, cradling a single red butterfly. The piece makes for an utterly singular climbing structure. You might call Oro the “anchor tenant” for the wider Hidden Creek Park, which fully opened last month to Hillsboro kids and families.

Forrest Osaki, the four-year-old who won the city’s naming competition last year with “Oro” — a riff on Hillsboro and Spanish for “gold” — couldn’t believe his eyes when he stepped into the park on opening day. “Wow,” he exclaimed. “That’s bigger than I thought. Like two times bigger than me.” Oro is a bit larger than two-times Osaki’s size though it depends on how you measure the reposed giant. Oro is 56 feet long while lying on the ground but would be more than 65 feet tall if standing!

Not that either of them mind the size difference. Oro has the look of a gentle giant, or a sweet, even-tempered family dog, who willingly allows all sorts of exuberant play. Oro is steadfast, sturdy enough to take it all. Kids scrambling aboard the shoulders, rolling their wheelchairs through the open body cavity, crawling into the crevices within the belly and arms, and climbing up the leg towers. Even reaching through the open nostrils. Oro will even blithely cradle kids and parents in their open palm and pose for photos, their arms slung round the butterfly’s bright wooden wings.


The City of Hillsboro, pop. 106,000 and located immediately west of Portland, commissioned the park reconstruction in 2021. They requested a bold design that would generate a true destination park for kids of all ages and abilities.


Back in 2019, master stick sculptor Patrick Dougherty created elaborate, vaguely face-like sculptures in nearby Orenco Woods Nature Park. The temporary exhibit was a major draw, highly Instagramable, and deeply playful with its natural form, its curvatures, and the strangely comforting enclosures. The community of Hillsboro wanted something similarly natural and elegant, but permanent. Something that would captivate wonder and instigate immediate playful responses. Something giant that would bring the community together.


In collaboration with the Portland team at MIG, Earthscape’s design team set to work, sketching out the early designs of a friendly giant, a keeper of the forest. They wanted to create sculpture that mixed social, physical, and adventurous play alongside quiet spaces for hiding or peaceful solitude. They also wanted a sculpture that was intuitively accessible, inclusive for kids of all ages and abilities. 


Oro’s skin is quite literally gold. Tones of ochre yellow, orange and beige give the giant’s face, hands and feet a warm sensation that adds to their character. Inside, Oro is an Indiana-Jones-like jungle oasis; a green temple ruin that is overgrown with green roots, panels and nooks. The skylight net roof of Oro’s back allows light to glow through to the interior, much like light beams through a jungle.  


Inside Oro, children are met with pentagonal shapes and carved wooden textures along the ribbed structure, a kind of Dr. Seussian whimsy. Or as The Oregonian reported with their headline, “Let the Wild Rumpus Start,” something of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. On one side, mirrors reflect back at odd angles and bounce light further into the space. Along the other, a scaffolding of rope and irregular Flexform triangles allow for both climbing and lazing, with kids suspended, legs dangling, between the play at ground level and the scramblers on the nets overhead. 

Outside, the exterior slats of Oro’s body are fully traversable by log tangle and climbing holds. But the precise placement of those handholds, according to Nat, “require children to really consider which route they need to take. The openings into the body don’t allow for a straight climb up and down. Users instead need to traverse side-to-side.” Along the top, a spinal column of steel-core nets allows daylight to filter down, like a cathedral’s clerestory, to the children at play within.


Beside Oro’s elbow, the project team positioned a snaking Magnacus, Earthscape’s neologism combining “magnet” and “abacus.” An accessible play element, the Magnacus features magnetic wood beads that track along a curved stainless steel rail using magnetic force. The design invites social play and experimentation, as children work together to move the beads from one end to the other even as their opposite polarities repel the beads from each other.


At the end of August, two of our design team members attended the grand opening event and proudly stood by taking in the scene. Pencil sketches from two years ago were now fully realized, their forest giant released into the wild of free play. Word got around and soon enough the team had morphed into design stars, kids and adults pressing them for details (“how many screws does this thing have?”) or asking about Oro’s provenance (“Did a movie company make this?”). But the best question was the one that needed no answer: (“Did you design this? You must be really proud!”).


One parent approached the team, explaining that they have three kids — 14, 9, and 7 years old — and mom couldn’t remember the last time they had all actually played together. Nat, Nathan, and the parents turned to watch an impromptu game of tag suddenly develop among differently-aged kids in the open space around Oro. The kids didn’t know one another so instead referred to each other by clothing markers: “white shirt is IT!” they shouted in joy, inviting other kids into the game. 


By the look of things on opening day, Oro was playing exactly the role of forest keeper in Hillsborough’s new Hidden Creek Park. Kids scrambling up and over and under Oro, adults laughing their way into the mouth of the tube slide exiting one of the leg towers. And from somewhere deep inside Oro, the excited exclamation of a child in wonder: “This is better than Chuck E Cheese!”