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Monkey bars out, spider webs in

The Woodcock Nature Center is going green?

Yes, even the nature center saw steps it could take to create a more natural environment for the schoolchildren who play and learn there. A couple weeks ago, to fulfill its environmental mission and encourage more outdoor play by kids, it installed a new natural playground incorporating, wherever possible, only organic materials.

Just about every piece of playground equipment is now made of natural materials. The renovations include a rope “spider web” for kids to climb on, a chalkboard to foster the children’s artistic talents, and a wooden fort equipped with a slide the children have named “The Castle.”

At outdoor classes, counselors read books about animals and insects to the kids and draw pictures on the chalkboard.

The new playground has been a big hit, said Henryk Teraszkiewicz, executive director of the nature center — beyond anything he could have hoped for.

“The kids are asking, ‘How much playground time?’ or ‘When can we go to the playground?’” he said. The feedback has been especially positive from the younger age groups.

Mr. Teraszkiewicz said the younger kids have been extremely enthusiastic about the playground and it has made them all much more “attached to nature.” The playground, free to the public and open to all ages, is not designed to replace nature walks, but rather to introduce children to the idea of the outdoors as more fun and fulfilling than video games or watching television — a “gateway” to nature, as Mr. Teraszkiewicz put it.

In the near future, new spotting scopes will be added to allow kids to view the nature center’s trails, ponds, and wildlife. There will also be a log, carved out to allow water to flow through it. This will enable kids to experiment with the flow of water and see what happens when it is redirected at different points along the way.

While it advocates for greater connection with the outdoors, the nature center is nonetheless conscious of the technology-based era we live in. It has incorporated smartphone use into the nature trails. When scanned, QR codes on tree stumps give information about the trail or wildlife that inhabits the area. After the hikers have finished reading it displays a message urging them to put away their phones and continue on the trail until they find the next code. It’s all part of repurposing the nature center.

Mr. Teraszkiewicz said the nature center has been refining its mission over the past 10 years. In the beginning, its mission was primarily conservation-based; now, however, the emphasis is on creating a strong connection between nature and young people. If a stronger connection is made, conservation will naturally follow.

The playground’s role is to interest children in nature while making their parents more comfortable with the idea of children playing outdoors. Mr. Teraszkiewicz said this new direction is partly inspired by the work of journalist Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Mr. Louv argues that disconnection from nature in childhood can lead to depression and antisocial behavior later in life.

One study by Mr. Louv suggests the young leaders who emerge from natural playgrounds tend to be chosen based on intelligence, while leaders in conventional “blacktop” playgrounds are chosen based on physical strength. Mr. Louv spoke at the Woodcock Nature Center earlier this year, and later in Newtown, about the healing effects of nature, a message the Woodcock Nature Center supports now more than ever.

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