NC natural sciences museum builds ‘backyard’ in West Raleigh

akenney@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    Prairie Ridge Ecostation opens its new Nature PlaySpace with crafts and stories at 10 a.m. on Saturday. The “vinecutting” happens at 11 a.m., and the event continues until 1 p.m. Prairie Ridge is located at 1671 Gold Star Dr., off Reedy Creek Road, in Raleigh.

    The natural area is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday and noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.

— The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ 45-acre Prairie Ridge Ecostation in West Raleigh has been a crossroads for families and research scientists since 2006. Starting this weekend, it will aim for a younger crowd.

A new natural play area with tunnels, digging sites and water experiments for young children opens with a Saturday ceremony. The goal of the new playground is to adapt the rest of the park’s scientific and natural lessons for toddlers and elementary-schoolers.

“This is the backyard for the Museum of Natural Sciences,” said Charles Yelton, director of Prairie Ridge, during a preview of the park Wednesday.

The “ecostation” already hosts storytelling times and other kid-friendly activities among its sustainable technology displays. And with the “vinecutting” – like a ribbon-cutting – on Saturday morning, the little ones will have their own area.

The new playground is designed for exploration. At this week’s preview, kids ran through and over a tunnel, played with water, drummed on bamboo and dug for shark teeth, among other fun activities in the new one-third acre play area.

“It’s very much a trend in the natural sciences to have a space like this,” said Emlyn Koster, the museum’s new director.

Kristen Nightingale already brings her two daughters to Prairie Ridge “all the time,” she said.

“I think it’s everything – in terms of her intellectual development and fostering her curiosity, the natural world is everything,” Nightingale said. At the time, Olivia Nightingale, 4, was dressed as a groundhog, climbing in and out of an oversized tunnel.

The museum built the new playground for less than $10,000, thanks in part to volunteers and donations, including part of a “Grow Up Great” grant from the PNC Foundation.

Beyond the new play area, families will find “breeding groups” of each of the state’s natural trees, down to the parsleyleaf hawthorn, along with 150 species of birds, 40 types of dragonflies and damselflies, and 20 different mammals. The land, previously used as a pasture for N.C. State University’s bovines, also is a showcase for “green building” techniques and solar power.

Local researchers, meanwhile, use the area as a testbed for natural sciences, including a laboratory for plants. Visitors to the free park occasionally can help observe birds, among other ongoing experiments.

And while it’s surrounded on three sides by highways, state offices and the N.C. National Guard headquarters, Prairie Ridge opens to the west into fields and forests managed by N.C. State University and to William B. Umstead State Park.

“We get to take advantage of all that biodiversity,” Yelton said.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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