Some people call the small round house tucked among the plants and trees at Shaw Nature Reserve an elf or hobbit house, but Karen Bryan, education programs coordinator, thinks of it as the Winnie-the-Pooh house.
“He lived in a tree like this,” said Bryan, smiling, as she walked up the gravel path to the child-like structure.
Made from the base of an enormous tree found at the Meramec River gravel bar on the property, the house definitely looks like something out of a cartoon. Several small stools made from tree logs are tucked inside so children can take a rest or use their imagination to pretend play.
That’s kind of the whole point behind this area of the reserve known as the Sense of Wonder Woodland, said Jessica Kester, senior manager, education and visitor experience.
“Most of the time kids spend outside these days is on a soccer field or a playground surrounded mostly by concrete, and they have a specific agenda while they are there,” said Kester.
“The idea with this space is to really leave it open-ended for kids, because all the research shows that unstructured play is what builds creative problem solving and confidence,” she said. “It’s built-in risk, and that’s what research is showing kids need — to have a small amount of risk, like climbing on some logs, that really helps them develop their confidence and their sense of, ‘I can try that! I can try something new!’ ”
The Sense of Wonder Woodland was added in 2015 after the success of the reserve’s Nature Explore Classroom, which opened in 2008. The initial thinking back then was that kids needed a more structured way to interact with nature because they were getting less and less of it in their daily lives than previous generations.
Bryan said what they have noticed from observation is that kids today and their grandparents seem very comfortable exploring nature, but it’s their parents who are more reluctant and cautious.
“So by playing here at the Nature Explore Classroom or Sense of Wonder Woodland, they get more comfortable in exploring nature, and maybe they agree to walk around the lake next, go down to the wildflower garden or do different things,” said Bryan. “They are more willing to go a little further out.”
“These areas give people a little more of a structured, yet unstructured, way to interact with nature so they will be able to go off on their own on a trail or elsewhere,” she said.
Nature Explore Classroom
The arbor marking the entrance to the Nature Explore Classroom is visible from the parking lot just off the main entrance. A gravel path takes you down into the space, where there are several “rooms” for play and learning:
• A music and movement room features a couple of marimbas (standing xylophones) and one hanging xylophone;
• A climb and crawl room includes two hollowed-out tree trunks several feet in diameter that children (and small adults) can crawl through, as well as balance beams and a tree trunk with limbs that serve as handrails; and
• A “spider web” that kids can crawl across.
Last year, four raised garden beds were installed in the classroom by a local Boy Scout for his Eagle Scout project. Two of the beds are planted with flowers and two are planted with fruits and vegetables.
The staff give away the fruits and vegetables to visitors when they can. It’s a way to introduce vegetable gardening to people who maybe haven’t done it before. Just even seeing the raised beds gives people ideas of what they can plant in their own backyards.
“I’ll hear people saying something like, ‘Oh, we could plant tomatoes at home,’ ” said Kester.
The landscaping and natural areas have grown up around the Nature Explore Classroom and Sense of Wonder Woodland so much that they have become even more enclosed than they were before, really giving visitors a feeling of seclusion. They also are very shaded, which is nice on hot summer days.
Sense of Wonder Woodland
The path to the Sense of Wonder Woodland is right off the Nature Explore Classroom. Along with the elf/Winnie-the-Pooh house, visitors will find:
•A storybook walk and Little Free Library. People are invited to take a book home with them, or there are a few wooden benches where they read a book from the library right away. People also can bring books to stock the library.
• A mud-kitchen area with bins where kids can mix up things and “cook” them.
• A pollinator playground filled with a variety of materials that pollinators enjoy crawling in and out of. The area is typically more active in the fall, said Bryan.
• The Treemendous tree bridge across the shallow pond is popular. Made from a real tree that was found on the property, the tree trunk was stripped of its bark to make it smooth. Limbs stick up along the footpath to serve as handles as people make their way across.
People (children and adults) have been known to fall into the water as they cross the bridge, so don’t feel embarrased if it happens to you, said Bryan. The water is about 18 inches deep.
• The Lookout Tower provides a great view of the water and the Treemendous Bridge. It’s also an ideal place to spot turtles or other creatures swimming in the pond or sunning on a log.
• Two different types of standing swings.
“We hope that these things inspire people to create similar areas or activities in their own yard or just to get outside more,” said Kester. “There is a statistic I’ve seen that says kids spent less time outside than the average prisoner because prisoners are assigned amounts of time to spend outside, and kids don’t have that.”
She believes most families want to have more time outside, and she’s hopeful that these spaces are fun and different enough to attract them.
“Hopefully we’re providing that gateway for people to be outside more,” said Kester.
Coming Back for More
Although there is no way to get an accurate number of exactly how many people are using the Nature Explore Classroom and Sense of Wonder Woodland each year, Bryan said the reserve staff have found there are parents who visit the classroom and woodland spaces who are then signing up for classes and programs at the reserve or coming back to use the trails.
“A lot of school groups who come for visits specify they want these areas to be part of their day,” Bryan noted. “It used to be these were more of a filler, something to do if they had extra time. Now they want it to be part of their day, because they want their students to have that free play. They are recognizing the benefit of it.”
If You Go . . .
Shaw Nature Reserve, located at 307 Pinetum Loop Road, Gray Summit, is open seven days a week. Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 1 through Aug. 31, and then 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 1 through March 31.
Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors ages 65 and older, and free for children ages 12 and under.
Admission is always free for members.
Two days a year, admission is free to everyone — June 1, which is National Trails Day, and July 24, in honor of Henry Shaw’s birthday.
Visitors will notice that a new gate has been installed just outside of the Visitor Center. Although it has yet to be put into operation, the gate was installed to help the staff to get a more accurate count of attendance.
“Every grant we apply for, they are asking for an attendance count, so this will allow us to monitor traffic and get a more accurate number,” said Kester.
Once the gate is operational, people will get a token to open the gate after they check in at the Visitor Center.