As a child, I grew up exploring the woods behind my childhood home. I'd feed my dolls clover that I picked, make a home for us in the tall grass and, if I had time, meander down to a small pond, climbing on and around fallen trees.
To me, it seemed like a huge, never-ending forest. In reality, it was likely less than a block or so in size, bordered on all sides by homes and a small downtown. But it was my own space, something my own children, who live in a much more densely populated area, don't have in their backyard.
The new play space was built thanks to a grant from PNC's Grow Up Great program, which support early childhood education opportunities.
"It's something that we've been talking about for years," Jan Weems, the museum's senior manager of early childhood programs, tells me.
Kids who made the trek to Prairie Ridge for programs and school field trips would finish a class and eat lunch and then look for a place to just play. Prairie Ridge has had a small outdoor play area with a fossil dig and spot to build gnome houses with sticks and rocks, but there was no big space where many kids could play.
"We didn't really have a place for that," Weems said. "This is a chance to do this, giving kids a place [where] it's OK to get off the trail, look under the log, pick up the stick."
Nature play spaces like this have been growing in popularity over the years thanks, in part, to the work of N.C. State's Natural Learning Initiative. The group works to promote the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children through design, education and other avenues, according to its website. Museum staff have attended initiative workshops and met with leaders there as they came up with plans for the play space.
The idea is that kids learn different skills when they play and explore the natural world rather than just spend their outdoor time only at traditional playgrounds or sports fields.
"To me, it's an intrinsic part of our being," Weems said. "It's catching the sunlight that we need for Vitamin D protection. It's interacting with micromorganisms so we have healthy flora and fauna in our guts. It's understanding the complex problem solving that you learn when you're working with irregular objects. It's the variability. It's different every single time."
Building with different kinds of bark, limbs and branches is a much different engineering problem than if you're working with the classic wooden blocks at school, for instance, she said. It forces kids to be more creative.
"I think it's the level of complexity that we just can't duplicate in a suburban lawn or indoor gymnasium," she said.
The new space, which sits next to Prairie Ridge's outdoor amphitheater, isn't fancy. It's designed for the youngest kids - from birth to age 7. In fact, it's not much different from that woods that I explored starting at the age of 4. And that's the point, Weems said.
It has "all the things that I grew up in my backyard, it's just a little more organized and a little less poison ivy," she said. "We've done poison ivy removal. We're still asking parents to play with their children, of course. It's just a place to make that all happen."
The play space meanders along an edge of the ecostation. A centerpiece is the groundhog tunnel, a kid-sized tunnel under a grassy mound that kids can climb through and pop out of, much like the actual groundhogs that live in nearby burrows.
You'll also find stumps to walk across that take you to a small prairie with tall grasses. There are fossil dig areas to discover shark teeth and other finds. There's a small mud kitchen; a spot to build with bark, limbs and trees; a giant dirt pile to dig in; two separate water areas, which will be turned off during cold weather; a teepee; and a balance beam made from a log.
There's a small bird blind where you can sit and spy cardinals, blue jays and the other birds that flit around the place. And there is a spot for building gnome and fairy houses. It includes a mailbox where kids can leave treats or notes for the magical creatures (include your address and they'll get a return letter).
In a lot of ways, the play space mirrors the bigger ecostation, where you'll find a prairie, bird blind, pond and garden. The old play space with the fossil dig and gnome and fairy house building was moved to the new play area.
"It's a little more open, a little more rustic. We intend to keep it that way," Weems said. "... We want to make it simple enough that teachers say I can do this at my playground or parents say I can do this in my backyard."
Museum leaders have improvements planned for the play space as funding allows. Weems said she'd like to add a low canopy that would allow kids to explore what's in the trees; boardwalk access to the nearby bathrooms; and more work with the museum's special populations staff to ensure that all kids can play here. They'll also watch to see what kids really enjoy doing and what's not working over time.
Dawn Mak, early childhood specialist for the museum and also a long-time Wake County educator, is working on a slate of family programs that will take place in the nature play area. They will start this fall, so stay tuned. Mak played a major role in the design of the new space.
Both Mak and Weems hopes families make a trip to the nature play space a regular one ... much like a weekend trip to a traditional playground.
"You want it to be a child's regular experience," Weems said. "You want every child to have a nature play space close by and it become part of their routine."
For a closer look, watch my video interview with Weems and check out the image gallery.
Prairie Ridge Ecostation is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4:30 p.m., Sunday. Admission is free. Find it at 1671 Gold Star Dr., just off Reedy Creek Road not too far from the N.C. Museum of Art.
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