New play area will give visitors a different opportunity to become one with nature

New play area will give visitors a different opportunity to become one with nature

HOMER — It used to be that children played outdoors and made use of natural items — rocks, sticks, leaves, water and snow — to get exercise, build strength, develop their imaginations and learn how nature and society are interdependent.

Not so much any more, according to researchers.

"Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment — but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That's exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child," wrote Richard Louv, author of the book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder," about how children benefit from contact with nature.

That nature deficit has park and forest preserve supervisors thinking about a new generation of playgrounds and landscapes for children. In Champaign County, it has prompted development of what is called a "natural playscape" at the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

"The focus a lot of people have now is to try to get kids to have fun in nature, something that came natural to us," said Jerry Pagac, director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. "Now, too many kids are sitting in their air-conditioned house and playing video games and working on their computers, and they're losing touch with nature. This will encourage them to interact with nature."

The Homer Lake playscape, which is being built mostly by forest preserve district employees and mainly with donations from groups and individuals, will include a large tree taken from a farm in northeastern Champaign County, big boulders, a natural-looking stream, a maze of prairie grasses, hills and other natural features.

This fall, Parkland College students will begin construction of a human-sized birdhouse at the playscape.

And more activities and objects can be added as funding becomes available.

"It's definitely a unique project for this area, a new concept," said Pam Leiter, assistant director of the forest preserve's museum and education department. "In a way, it's going to bring out the child in all of us. The adults who grew up in the outdoors are getting really excited about it and want to bring their kids and grandkids to it."

Although the playscape is designed for children 3 to 11, many adults have asked Leiter if a day could be set aside for grown-ups to play amid the stream, logs and mounds of dirt.

The forest preserve district set aside about $70,000 for the project, according to Pagac, and several groups have contributed a total of about $30,000. Those groups include the Marajen Stevick Foundation ($10,000), the North Face Explore Fund ($2,500), the Izaak Walton League ($2,400), Kohl's Department Stores ($2,060), the Champaign County Audubon Society ($2,000) and All Terrain Natural Products ($1,000). Numerous individuals have give another $8,900.

The playscape is expected to be dedicated sometime next spring, Pagac said.

Before they designed the Homer Lake playscape, forest preserve district employees visited two similar areas, including Jester Park north of Des Moines, Iowa, where children are encouraged to roll down hills, climb trees and dam up water. On its website, the Polk County Conservation board cautions: "Visitors should wear shoes and clothes that can get wet and dirty."

"That's the version that is most expensive and most highly designed," Pagac said. "To show the other extreme, we went over to the Sugar Grove Nature Center (a nonprofit facility) south of Bloomington. It's basically a stream that kids can get into and play. There's a pit and some loose dirt and shovels, and the kids work in there. And there are some logs the kids can jump on and around. Ours is kind of in-between those two."

Questions of liability inevitably arise if children are going to be jumping on and off rocks and logs, Pagac acknowledged. But risk managers took a look at the Homer Lake playscape and were unconcerned.

"They came to the conclusion, at least after looking at what we were doing, that it's basically natural," he said. "It's not something they're overly concerned about like a piece of playground equipment.

"It's like, if a kid is climbing on a log, he's climbing on a log in nature. It's no big deal."

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