When most adults see a rock, stump or log, their imaginations don't immediately come alive.
But when a child sees the same objects from nature, the items suddenly hold creative possibility: the stump becomes a chair, the log becomes a stage, the rock becomes a castle.
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That's the concept behind the new Nature Play Area at Cosley Zoo, now included in any adult or child entrance pass at the Wheaton facility, 1356 Gary Ave.
The Nature Play Area is designed with the child's imagination in mind. Tami Romejko, education supervisor at Cosley Zoo, says the area is based on Nature Play theory, a growing trend in environmental education.
"In a traditional play setting, like a playground, there are specific outcomes in mind," she said. "But Nature Play allows kids to become curious and creative, forming their own outcomes."
Romejko gleaned much of her experience in Nature Play theory from NatureStart, a training program offered by Brookfield Zoo. Natasha Fischer, another Cosley Zoo educator, attended the training as well.
Now that the educators have implemented their NatureStart findings into the Nature Play Area at Cosley Zoo, they're excited to see how children and their parents engage with the materials they find.
The materials themselves are simple objects found in nature: logs, tree stumps, sticks and rocks. The sign at the space's entrance invites parents and children to "discover and explore."
It's no accident that there aren't many instructions for participants. "We want the play to be very open-ended," Romejko said.
The area is open for free play whenever the zoo is open, but a more structured program, Zoo Investigators, is also available for children ages 5 to7.
"The program, like the space itself, is child-led," Romejko said, "but the instructor will give children a starting topic and questions: nocturnal animals, for example. Again, though, the children really guide the time and determine the outcome."
The Nature Play Area also includes a free library, provided by Girl Scout Troop 368 at St. Michael Parish School in Wheaton, so children can read books while they use the space.
"People are once again realizing the importance of unstructured play," Romejko said.
Cosley Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. For more information or to become a Cosley Zoo member, visit www.cosleyzoo.org or call (630) 665-5534.