Walking along the one and a half miles of pathways within the WNC Nature Center, you’ll encounter playful otters, howling gray and red wolves, and napping red pandas. You’ll also find eight Nature Play areas, which are especially popular with our younger guests.
Numerous studies show that frequent unstructured play in nature has a number of health benefits for children, including supporting their physical, cognitive, creative, social and emotional development. It also helps instill an appreciation for and kinship with the outdoors that can lead to conservation behavior as children grow. The Nature Center models nature-based play spaces throughout the grounds with nature “play pockets” along the pathways. Each nature play pocket is designed to encourage interaction with natural materials and entice different types of play behavior.
While still temporarily closed to the public due to North Carolina’s Stay Safe order, the WNC Nature Center welcomed the Rotary Club of Asheville and Rotaract Asheville in late July for a volunteer work day to refurbish the well-loved and well-used Nature Play space above the Turtle Amphitheater and across from the Animal Enrichment Garden.
In 2010, the Rotary Club of Asheville gave a significant gift to match a grant from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for this Nature Play space within the WNC Nature Center. After almost a decade of use, many of the natural items needed to be refurbished or replaced, and the Rotarians were excited to fund, develop, and help reconstruct their sponsored space.
This Nature Play space encourages play through music and movement. Fort building posts provide opportunities for dynamic play and practicing STEM skills as children use found tree limbs to construct forts. Natural log jump stumps and balance beams also help with motor skill development and learning how to self-regulate risks. A wooden amadinda, tongue drum, and rain wheel present musical elements for expressing creativity. The space also has a brand new sensory path for exploring the different textures, sounds, and even aromas produced when walking along the path.
Rotarian Pat Snyder is a current member of the Friends of the WNC Nature Center who helped lead the volunteer work group. “We were excited to team up with the Friends of WNC Nature Center to help restore this well-used portion of the park,” Snyder says. “It’s one of the many ways we support Rotary International’s goals by supporting education here in our local area. And this project is a great way for us to volunteer together with others in our community to make a difference during these unprecedented times.”
Alayna Schmidt, Education Specialist at the WNC Nature Center, worked closely with the groups to plan the work day: “We can’t wait for our guests to experience the updates to this popular Nature Play space! In addition to replacing existing elements, Rotary Club and Rotaract volunteers added brand new structures, including an additional fort building post and a sensory path for more dynamic play. Best of all, most of these elements were created with materials anyone can find at a local home improvement store, so hopefully guests will leave inspired to create their own nature play spaces at home or elsewhere in their communities.”
When the Nature Center reopens, take the opportunity to practice your poise on natural balance beams, get in tune with nature with wooden drums and an amadinda, slide like an otter, paint with water, build a chute, construct a fort, and more. Nature Play areas are designated on the Nature Center pathway and in trail maps by a green box with a white “play” icon inside.
The Rotary Club of Asheville is a group of active, engaged citizens interested in making friends, building relationships, and giving back to their community. They annually fund and provide volunteer support for over 14 local and international projects with a combined total budget of nearly $100,000! To learn more, get involved, or get the invite link for their weekly on-line meeting on Thursdays from 12:30-1:30, visit rotaryasheville.org.
The Asheville Rotaract is a group of young professionals between the ages of 21 and 35 who are enthusiastic about serving the local community. The club focuses on regular volunteer service, professional development, and building connections with Rotarians and community leaders. With monthly meet-ups held both in-person and virtually, they foster civil engagement and meaningful community. To learn more and get involved, visit their Facebook or Instagram by searching “Asheville Rotaract.”