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New nature play area opens in Michigan

November 12, 2018

MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) — Just a few yards from the Chippewa Nature Center visitor center, adjacent to the parking lot is The Woods Nature Play Area. After a soft open this summer, The Woods is now available for kids of all ages to interact with nature and each other.

“It’s a concept we’ve had for a number of years. We’ve had a couple of grants come through which enabled us to move forward on it,” said Jenn Kirts, director of programs. She went on to thank the support of the Dow Corning Donor Advised Fund through the Midland Area Community Foundation and the Midland Rotary Foundation.

The thought behind the play area came from the staff talking to parents who visit CNC. They shared fond memories of playing outside, exploring and making mud pies. While there is a play area for children who attend the Nature Preschool and visitors are encouraged to explore along the Center’s 19 miles of trails, the staff wanted a play area that was more open to the public and is relatively clear of natural dangers.

The CNC team searched for a location that was close to the visitor center, easy to access, relatively free of poison ivy and where they would not be destroying a sensitive ecosystem. Eventually they settled on a section of pine forest that fits all the criteria.

“The idea behind this whole thing is just free play,” Kirts told the Midland Daily News . “Use the space how you want to use it. Play in the woods, get comfortable with the natural materials.”

Compared to most contemporary playgrounds, The Woods doesn’t contain play sets made of steel or smooth, relatively dry terrain. A cedar split rail fence borders the 1/3 acre lot and encompasses several features for young explorers.

One of the first stations is a water pump, sourced by a reservoir that’s filled a couple times a day. The small hill was once covered in sandy soil; now the exposed rock is littered with buckets, pails and sticks.

“It’s a very messy play area, but that’s what kids need: loose parts to create and play. It’s so fascinating to see what they come up with.”

From the pump, kids can take the water to the mud kitchen, which was built by a staff member’s dad. The kitchen is outfitted with cooking stations, shelves that can be used as cupboards or ovens, sinks and windows. Kirts has seen younger kids try their hand at mud pies while teenagers have cooking competitions.

“We see 2- and 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds and 12-year-olds all playing at the same time which is really neat because kids don’t necessarily get that multi-age play.”

A smaller structure is the corral, an enclosed space with benches and cubbyholes stocked with pinecones and corncobs. The intentional sparseness of the area allows kids to exercise their imaginations.

“This has been a food truck, a restaurant, a daycare, a school,” Kirts observed.

Not everything in The Woods is built on a small scale. In the center of the area is the outline of a cabin. Older kids have constructed walls of sticks and, like the corral, made the space their own. The CNC staff will come into The Woods once in a while to pick up the scattered containers or add more corncobs, but the area is in a constant state of change.

“We came in one time and all the tables were dragged over to the corral,” Kirts reported. “One was tipped over and blocking the doorway. Clearly there had been something happening there. They had a plan.”

A sound garden built by a local Boy Scout and a stage offer more theatrical components to the play area. A vernal pool, stump circle and natural tree fort provide avenues for children to engage with nature and build their awareness of their surroundings; sticks might fall in the fort, stumps and rocks may be slippery when wet, changing seasons pose a variety of difficulties. But developing a sense of mindfulness is healthy, Kirts said.

“There are risks here because you are playing in nature ... This has challenge naturally built in.”

To help parents and children appreciate the risks and make the best of the space, staff will have signs posted along the fence with suggestions on how to “protect nature,” ″be adventurous and aware,” ″respect each other” and take “healthy risks.”

“It’s really designed to be a space to play in the woods,” Kirts said.

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Information from: Midland Daily News, http://www.ourmidland.com

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