Editor's Note: We'll be writing about road trips this summer, starting with this new spot at the N.C. Zoo. Check back for more occasional posts on Fridays.
Nature play is the buzzword among those in the play business, and the N.C. Zoo has jumped on the bandwagon with KidZone.
The idea behind nature play is that kids aren't spending enough time outside, searching for tadpoles in the creek or getting dirty making mud pies. Experts and parents worry that they're losing out on that kind of unstructured play and not developing deep appreciations for the world around them.
So places like KidZone are springing up around the country. They also include Into the Mist at the Museum of Life and Science, the nature playground at White Deer Park in Garner and the nature play area at Prairie Ridge Ecostation in west Raleigh, among others.
In March, the zoo in Asheboro opened KidZone, a $1 million project that offers everything from a stream and mud cafe to an outdoor playhouse and rock labyrinth. KidZone sits across from the polar bear exhibit in the North America section. The entrance, a giant stick structure called Ready or Not, is hard to miss and a great place for a quick game of hide and seek.
"It's all about getting children back in nature," said Jack Coulter, a zoo play leader and college intern from England whose studies focus on the importance of play for kids. "We live in a society today where children don't have many opportunities to engage with wildlife, outdoor activities."
At KidZone, the nature is mostly made. There's a shallow stream for wading; a waterfall that kids can dam up and divert; a manufactured rock maze; and that adorable mud cafe complete with a kitchen, menus and dining room. Kids can dress up like veterinarians and animals in a playhouse or make designs on a big chalk wall.
People like Coulter lead kids in all sorts of arts, crafts and activities. In recent weeks, that included a tea party and a cardboard challenge where kids built things out of giant cardboard pieces. Regular visits with animals also are part of the plan for the area.
A ropes course, with an entrance right by the mud kitchen, is expected to open this summer.
I spent more than an hour here with my preschooler and, like some of the other play areas at the zoo, including the playground, it was a struggle to get her out of there so we could actually see some animals before we headed home. This is a really fun spot that's enclosed completely by the fence so you don't have to worry about kids darting out and can just let them play.
I highly recommend bringing some rain boots or water shoes and some dry clothes if you're going to play in the creek. Swim diapers are a must for kids who are not potty trained. The kids were getting pretty wet in there when we visited.
KidZone is free with admission to the N.C. Zoo, which is in Asheboro about 90 minutes from the Triangle.