Nestled in the woods in Cromwell Valley Park is an enchanted play area just for kids. It has balance beams made from recycled logs, a mud kitchen whose specialty is mud pies and a puppet theater with a stage and seating area.
While it might look like the fairies built it, the Nature Discovery Zone, on the Willow Grove side of the Baltimore County park, is actually meticulously planned and based on research about children's play behavior.
"Unstructured playing in nature has health benefits and social benefits for children," said Gianina Dotterweich, park naturalist and the force behind Nature Discovery Zone. She envisioned it, designed it and recruited volunteers to build the area, about 100 yards by 50 yards, which opened last June.
Cromwell Valley's Nature Discovery Zone is not the first or only such play area in county parks. Oregon Ride and Robert E. Lee parks both have them, too.
Designed for preschool to young elementary school-age children, they contain "all the things you can do playing outside but in a controlled environment," said Dotterweich. She refers to what is called the "new nature movement," based on journalist Richard Louv's 2005 book, "The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder."
Although Gotterweich designed the play area on her own, she had help. The state Department of Natural Resources offers guidelines in the form of a nature play spaces pattern book on its website.
Starting last fall, the area was built in phases, as volunteers and funding became available. "Different groups built different features," said Dotterweich, who figures the whole project cost the park about $200.
Patricia Ceglia, an architectural designer and ecological site planner, built a lean-to and a teepee, both survival shelters you can put together with material found in the woods. She used students from an educational course she teaches for Heathcote, an "intentional community," or a group of individuals sharing responsibilities and resources, in Freeland, Md.
"We're always looking for projects to do and the Cromwell Valley nature center is always doing projects for the kids," said Ceglia, who teaches the course on permaculture design at Cromwell Valley Park. "There's an ongoing collaboration."
Scott Mouring built the puppet theater as his Eagle Scout service project for Boy Scout Troop 832 in Timonium.
"I went to the park. They told me what they were working on and gave me a list of options," said Scott, 15, Towson resident and Dulaney High School student, and son of Sarah Mouring and David Uliana. He said he chose the puppet theater because it reminded him of puppets shows he'd enjoyed as a child.
The theater is 6 by 6 feet, 54 inches tall and 30 inches high. Scott didn't build it alone. Over weekends in July, he was joined by scouts in his troop, scouts in other troops and families of scouts. The Kiwanis Club of Towson-Timonium donated $400, and The Home Depot in Parkville discounted lumber and other supplies by half.
"I was told by counselors at the park's summer camp that the kids loved it," he said. "They even built their own puppets."
Rick Childs is part of a group of eight to 10 men, some retired, who regularly volunteer at Cromwell Valley. "We keep the trails open, clear fallen trees, fix fences and work on other projects as they come up," said Childs, a financial executive and Parkville resident.
The group built the mud kitchen and a sandbox, and installed the logs for the balance beams and the puppet theater's seating area. "Gianina had the ideas," he said. "We'll work on other projects as she comes up with them."
Indeed, as far as Dotterweich is concerned, the Nature Discovery Zone is an ongoing project, with a slide next on her to-do list. But from the moment it opened, the play area was immensely popular and, even more interesting to her, validates the research that spurred it.
"It's amazing. You read all the research" about the new nature movement, she said. "And the families with young children do come, and they do all the things the research says. It actually works."