“We want to change visitors’ hearts and minds from fear of the outdoors and apprehension to caring and appreciation.” Kimberly Swift, Education Programs Manager at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, summarized with those words the intent behind the national park’s newly unveiled Nature Play Zone at the Paul Douglas Center for Environmental Education, which allows children and caregivers to build sand forts and rock castles, climb trees, and use their imaginations to discover and play in nature in thousands of other ways.
The Nature Play Zone is part of a broader effort at Indiana Dunes to inspire families to connect with nature in their own backyards, community parks, and their neighborhood national park. “The seed for the Nature Play Zone was planted by all of you,” continued Ms. Swift as she addressed educators from ten other conservation agencies and organizations from Illinois and Indiana at a tour of the play area in April. “Our staff visited the nature play areas at your organizations and participated in the Nature Start training at Brookfield Zoo and Leave No Child Inside workshops all over the region.”
The Play Zone at Indiana Dunes is one of the first, if not the first, unstructured play area in the entire National Park system. So Ms. Swift and her colleagues had to ensure that the deeper engagement with nature made possible by the Play Zone outweighed any potential damage to the environment. “It helped that the site was very disturbed to begin with,” said Ms. Swift. The area used to be a railroad junction until a few years back.
There were also many questions of liability and risk that had to be addressed by the park before it could open the play area. But after careful consideration, the Nature Play Zone welcomed its first visitors in April of 2013. The first 1,000 families received a free explorer backpack, to further encourage them to come together around nature-based activities. “We hope that families will use the backpacks on return visits or simply when they go out into their backyards or neighborhood parks. That is our common goal,” said Ms. Swift, “to leave no child inside wherever they are.”
For directions to the Paul Douglas Center, visit http://www.nps.gov/indu/planyourvisit/deec.htm
For a listing of additional unstructured nature play areas in the Chicago Wilderness region, visit http://www.chicagowilderness.org/index.php?cID=298#play_areas