“Let your walks now be a little more adventurous.” – Henry David Thoreau
One thing that the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres has in abundance is space for exploration. After all, it has a lake, a river AND a canal, wetlands that fill and drain with the seasons, a perfect tadpole pool, dense woods that are like a barricade, open woods that invite a proper game of cops and robbers, a meadow for chasing fireflies, heavy grapevines that resemble something old and gnarled from the Forbidden Forest, and twisty paths that don’t show up on the map but mysteriously disappear over a ridge or around a corner. And that’s just on the nature side of things.
The evolution of 100 Acres and its visitors has been an interesting one, and as we begin to better understand why people come and what they are looking for, we can begin to interpret the natural part of our piece of White River floodplain in a way that the Indianapolis community and beyond can appreciate. There is still quite a bit of “wild” in 100 Acres and, to some degree, we want to keep it that way. What better opportunity for teaching visitors how to respond to and respect the nature they are experiencing? There are many different vines in the park; which ones are okay to touch and which ones will make your skin itch and burn the next day? Oops; that river embankment is too steep to scale and forces you to find a better way back up. Ouch! What makes that specific spot so ideal for that ground bees’ nest? Our goal is to make things accessible without making them too easy, without removing all risk and therefore all opportunities to learn something nature can teach about our place in the environmental community.
As a way to address this challenge of cognitive accessibility, a new element was introduced to the park this season: a Play Patch. The idea is a simple one, using all wood materials found onsite to create a creative play area that includes interactive elements that can be moved, manipulated and explored. If the whole of 100 Acres is a bit intimidating, the Play Patch was designed in an effort to ease people into interacting with natural elements that haven’t been shellacked, plasticized or cleaned up. A ring of seats cut from recycled tree trunks, loose branches for building structures, and tree cookies made from cross-sections of smaller branches make up the play pieces within a mulched area in the shape of a tulip poplar leaf – Indiana’s state tree. The educational implications are intentionally subtle; one can count the rings on the seats or tree cookies to discover how old the pieces were when they were cut, use the tree cookies as counters or to visually express mathematical equations, or maybe learn in very basic terms how to engineer a tower of cookies that can stand on its own. Or you can just play. There are natural processes at work that can be observed by way of bugs, fungi, worms and bark that is peeling off the harder, inner wood. Or you can just play.
The point is, playing in this setting, with these elements, can educate someone without them realizing they’re receiving instruction. Early naturalist Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach …” Beautiful thought, Mr. Thoreau, but I would hedge a bet that even if you don’t go to the woods to live deliberately, you are still likely to learn a thing or two before you come out. Maybe it’s a boost in confidence, or hearing a bird call you don’t recognize. Perhaps it’s as monumental as self-discovery or self-expression, or as mundane as being grossed out by a slug. Whatever you learn, it is important to make connections between oneself and the natural world in order to better understand both.
The Play Patch is a small step to achieving this, and the hope is for other Play Patches to spring up around the park featuring different natural elements, such as stone or grasses. Don’t look for one yet on any map; you’ll just have to come discover where they are hidden, in the woods.