TRAVERSE CITY — Kids will soon have a new place to get up close and personal with nature.

A mud kitchen, child-size nest, tunnel, giant climbable spider net, water feature and other elements make up the Nature Playscape now under construction at the Grand Traverse Conservation District’s Boardman River Nature Center.

“In this time where there is constant change and uncertainty, Grand Traverse Conservation District believes there has never been a more important time to be outside and connect with the natural world,” said Irene Stibitz, the organization’s community engagement specialist. “Our children need that social and emotional connection and a safe environment to connect with nature and each other.”

Covering 55,125 square-feet, the nature-based playground was designed by Center education directory Taryn Carew and volunteer Tracie MacPherson. MacPherson moved to the area five years ago with her children and husband, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. MacPherson’s experience as the mother of five and her background in museum education inspired her interest in helping develop the playground for toddlers to middle school youth.

“I’m excited after COVID to build a safe outdoor space for kids to roam and climb,” she said. “There’s a lot of dimensions to the playscape that address children where they are developmentally.”

MacPherson said some elements, such as a water sluice, facilitate STEM learning and take advantage of the playscape’s proximity to the Boardman River to enhance education. Other elements encourage imagination, sensory and language development.

A 12-foot nest situated 30 inches above ground invites kids to see the world from a bird’s point of view.

“Kids can scamper in,” MacPherson said. “It’s nestled into a tree — a beautiful environment.”

A fence will enclose the playscape. Along its boundary, plants will be put in to attract butterflies, demonstrating the type of vegetation they require and their life cycle.

“Even adults will enjoy the experience,” MacPherson said.

According to the National Wildlife Federation which supports natural play spaces, research shows children playing and learning in nature stimulates greater “vigor, engagement, imagination, and cooperation than in wholly artificial environments.”

And that natural play experiences reduce attention deficit disorder and depression.

GRCD’s playscape sits directly behind the Nature Center. Its play and learning opportunities will be incorporated into Center programming, but will be open to the public at all times free of charge.

Koffi Kpachavi, Grand Traverse Conservation District executive director said the final cost is yet undetermined.

“We are using a lot of volunteer labor as well as in-house skills,” he said.

Volunteers are needed for a workbee taking place in early October to install the playscape’s final elements. No special skills are required to help complete the new asset for an October unveiling.

Call the Boardman River Nature Center at 231-941-0960 to learn more about volunteering or to make a donation.

A 12-foot nest situated 30 inches above ground invites kids to see the world from a bird’s point of view.

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