Forget fancy, expensive toys. There’s nothing like a few blocks of wood or a pile of sand to grab the attention of young children. Yesterday they came with their parents to the opening of the new Nature Adventure Area at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Bray Area near Rolla.
“We heard about the Nature Explore Classrooms for preschoolers and decided to try it here,” said Pat Perry, one of the enthusiastic members of the Meramec Hills chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists. Pat, her husband, Bob, and the many other Master Naturalists around the state share their nature know-how in all sorts of ways—whether it’s creating a nature play area, fighting invasive species or teaching others about Missouri’s native plants and animals.
In addition to the pleasure of seeing kids engrossed in outdoor fun, I marveled at the creative ways in which the Master Naturalists had come up with low-cost materials to build the series of play “rooms,” defined by cedar logs here and there. The floor of one area uses all sorts of native stones along with slices of wood showing the growth rings. A wet play area is a refurbished bathtub set above ground.
Carol Mahan, conservation education consultant based in Rolla, and Connie Schmiedeskamp, a naturalist who works at the Bray Conservation Area, both told me how much they appreciate the Master Naturalists. “These people volunteer an amazing amount of time and energy,” Carol said. “We couldn’t do all this without them.”
Getting young children outside in nature is a real challenge. When we did focus groups with parents a year or so ago, many said they wanted a safe, clean place to take their children. They don’t want to take them into a really wild landscape, but they’d like something that isn’t all concrete, metal and plastic. The idea of playing in a more park-like setting with natural objects of woods, leaves and sand holds great appeal. Parents and preschools near Rolla have this new place at the Bray Conservation Area. The folks at Shaw Nature Reserve near St. Louis have create a certified Nature Explore Classroom for those who live near there. But I think that many communities could do this in local parks. It doesn’t require lots of money so much as it takes people willing to share their time and passion for helping to get it done.