Back in the Neolithic period, when I was a child, mothers would kick their children out the door in the morning and tell them to be back before dark. No lie, my mother had a large school bell she rang when it was dinnertime. You could hear that bell for a mile in any direction and knew it was time to come running (or biking) home. I did not live on a farm. I lived in suburban Detroit. There were plenty of woods to explore, trees to climb and creeks to wade.
That just doesn’t happen these days. Children are indoors way too much, for various reasons. The Virginia Zoo wants your children to dig in the sand, jump from stump to stump, climb a boulder, explore a bamboo forest and reconnect to nature. There is a brand new playscape inside the Zoo, called “Run Wild! Nature Discovery Zone”.
“This is a space where children and their families can let their imaginations run wild!” said Greg Bockheim, Executive Director of the Virginia Zoo. “Using natural elements, we encourage free play in this space – there is no ‘right’ way to play.”
I took my four grandkids, ages 7 – 11, to the Zoo to play-test the new Nature Discovery Zone one recent, very hot day. We met Education Manager, Michelle Lewis and Visitor Engagement Coordinator, Sarah Peterson at the Discovery Zone. I should say I met them. Two of the grandchildren made a beeline to the sand box and the other two headed straight into the Bamboo Maze. The Visitor Engagement Coordinator, Sarah, was pleased to see that the kids were immediately engaged.
Lewis explained that the goal for the one-acre area was to make it “all natural”. The stump jump is made of trees that fell at the Zoo. The balance beam is from locally sourced wood. The willow tunnel is created from the Zoo’s willow trees. The Education Department, Horticultural Department and Executive Director Greg Bockheim worked together to design and build the Nature Discovery Zone.
Lewis says their goal was to create a place for open-ended play. “A place where whimsy and imagination can come together outdoors.” She pointed out a recent study showing that even two hours a week outdoors is enough to help both your health and well being. She added, “ We want to provide a place where kids can take risks outdoors, because risk-taking helps decision making skills.”
There is a cute little Conservation Cabin in the Nature Discovery Zone, complete with a front porch. Right now, it is being used for storage, but beginning in the fall, there will be routine programming, animal talks, and story times. Sarah Peterson, the newly hired Visitor Engagement Coordinator, will be in charge of the year-round activities and programs at the Conservation Cabin. Peterson has worked at four other zoos and is excited to be in Norfolk, where she can program activities throughout the year, “even in the snow”.
What did my grandchildren think of the Nature Discover Zone? They loved it. The two that went straight to the sandbox, stayed at the sandbox for an hour, making friends with other children, and building sand structures. The other two tried out everything. Both were fascinated by the Bamboo Maze, walked the balance beams, jumped the stumps, and climbed all over the boulders. I had to entice everyone to leave after an hour with reminders of the new baby giraffe we came to see.
What will parents and grandparents think of the Nature Discovery Zone? I appreciated the near-by restrooms, the fact that most of the site is shaded and there are places for us old folks to sit. Lewis pointed out that the sandboxes are covered each night and reopened each morning. Geese roam the Zoo, so I appreciated knowing that. I was happy there were lots of buckets and shovels in the sandboxes.
Although there is no fence or barriers around the Nature Discover Zone, it is away from any animal exhibits and the sightlines are good. It is easy to keep track of your little ones, even if they go into the Bamboo Maze, which they will.
“Run Wild! Nature Discovery Zone” is a great place for your kids to run, balance, dig, jump, climb and explore. You can join them, or if you’re old, like me, you can sit in the shade for a few minutes before you’re on to see the zebras. Your children will be engaged and happy.
I haven’t been a Member at the Zoo. We went to the Zoo this week as part of the Membership Swap program with the Norfolk Botanical Garden (one of our other favorite places) for the month of June. The new Nature Discovery Zone might just be enough to convince me to become a Member at the Virginia Zoo.
Watch for programs and events to begin at the Conservation Cabin in the fall. In the meantime, have a nature play date at “Run Wild! Nature Discovery Zone” at the Virginia Zoo.