Dawn Mak and Jan Weems sit on a gently sloping hillside beside Prairie Ridge Ecostation’s outdoor classroom. Nearby, redwing blackbirds flit among low shrubs, and the occasional purple martin wheels and dives overhead.
On this sunny day, Mak, early childhood education specialist for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, has just given me a tour of Prairie Ridge’s nature playspace – a kid-friendly wooded area rich with reused materials, both natural and man-made, where my two young girls are playing (and getting very wet and sandy). Weems, the museum’s senior manager of early childhood education, is finishing her lunch and contributing the scientific names of things to our conversation. She’s the expert when such things are needed, Mak says.
“Prairie Ridge first came about as a research lab and an ecostation, so there was a lot of research going on,” Mak says of the 45 pastoral acres in west Raleigh. “It was really hard to bring a group of young children out here and show them all these things and then say, ‘Oh, you can’t touch.’” So they built the playspace. The idea was to re-create Prairie Ridge’s natural areas in an interactive, kid-friendly way.
They followed environmental expert Simon Nicholson’s 1970s theory of loose parts, which favors movable, abstract materials over structures with explicit purposes – logs and pots rather than swing sets and playhouses. The idea is to place as few limits as possible on kids’ imaginations. The thought, too, is to present play ideas parents and educators can replicate at home.
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Here are some of those ideas:
Prairie Ridge’s wigwam is made of fallen sticks of various lengths held together by zip ties. An even simpler project would be a teepee, Mak says, with large sticks or small branches for the three poles and a shower curtain wrapped around it.
“I have seen people use hula hoops, then put the shower curtain around it and hang it from a tree,” she says, suggesting another makeshift outdoor play tent.
Whether wrapping a shower curtain around a teepee or hanging it from a hula hoop, you can attach it the same way as you’d attach it to a shower rod – with curtain clips.
Take a branch an inch or two across and cut it into thin “cookies” (a bow saw or even a heavy-duty pruning tool will do with thin branches). For kids, these become toy coins or cookies – or, with holes drilled around the edges, lacing toys. With a single hole drilled, Mak says, a tree cookie becomes a name tag.
These can come from deadwood or fallen branches or from culled invasive species – Weems suggests Bradford pear and mimosa. Cedar, while not an invasive, does make pleasantly fragrant tree cookies.
Prairie Ridge has a whimsically painted mailbox set on a short post – the perfect height for kids to send or receive imaginative parcels and postcards. If you’re replacing your mailbox, this is a perfect use for the old one (and the only difference in how you’d set it up is the height of the post).
“A couple of weeks ago I came out on a Saturday, and the paper was just all over the place,” Mak says. “I picked it up and laid it all out, and I realized I had every stage of writing in the mix – everything from just marks on the paper to emergent writing to invented spelling to cursive and narration.”
“If you’ve ever tried to dig a hole in our Raleigh clay, we knew that would be very frustrating with the kids,” Mak says. “So we had a group come in and excavate 6 feet down – took out all the red clay – and we had a mixture of sand, sawdust and soil put in, so it stays light and loamy and easy to dig.”
Use the same mixture to stretch your store-bought play sand and make its consistency a little more interesting.
Kids can take paint samples – the kind you get for free at Lowe’s or Home Depot – outside and try to find that same color in nature. It’s a quick and easy scavenger hunt.
Stone or slate slabs
“Most of the concrete slabs are left over from the building of our museum,” Mak says, gesturing to repurposed materials from the construction of the Museum of Natural Science’s Nature Research Center. “We decided to just use the granite slabs for chalking and painting, as well as the slate pieces that are on the fence.”
The underside of the water play area here is made of slabs resting on gravel – the water filters through the gravel rather than turning to mud and oozing downhill.
“Habitat ReStore is a good place to look for things like that, especially if you can get natural stone, because just using a paintbrush and water brings out all the different colors,” Mak says.
Water wall/music wall
Though Prairie Ridge doesn’t have this, Mak describes a water wall made of 2-liter bottles with the bottoms cut off. The bottles are each bolted to a vertical board, bottoms up, so they can be turned. This way, kids can pour water and adjust its path by moving the bottles.
“Same thing with a music wall,” Mak says. “Use pot lids that don’t fit anymore and put them on a pallet.” Any kind of discarded or secondhand pots and pans will do. Then use sticks or discarded utensils and bang away.
Readers: We want to hear how you have repurposed old items. For your project to be considered for Second Time’s the Charm, send a description, photo and your contact information to email@example.com.
Check it out
If you’d like to see some of these ideas in action, Prairie Ridge’s annual gnomes and fairies event is 9 a.m.-noon Saturday. Kids are encouraged to dress as gnomes or fairies and enjoy scavenger hunts, balloon animals and games involving reused materials. The address is 1671 Gold Star Drive, Raleigh.
Info: 919-707-8880 or email firstname.lastname@example.org