Peggy Notebaert's new interactive Nature's PlaySpace lets kids explore Illinois' natural habitats
Starting this weekend, kids can jump across lily pads, listen to the croon of a prairie chicken and hang out in a beaver's lodge at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's new exhibit.
The Hawver and Lacy Families Nature's PlaySpace opened Saturday for children 8 and younger to explore Illinois' six Great Lakes habitats, including interactive displays representing natural prairies, wetlands and dunes.
"The inspiration is how can we connect children up to the age of 8 with the nature of our region?" museum President and CEO Erin Amico said. "That's really because children at that age really understand their environment through play, and a lot of data also shows the importance of play-based education and connecting kids with nature at an early age."
The $4 million installation is the museum's largest investment in two decades, with funding from private donations as well as a state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant.
The 3,050-square-foot playspace, modeled after Illinois habitats, is filled with hands-on components. Children can learn about the lake through water tables filled with 3D-printed boats and fish, as well as a large waterspout that sends water arching across the room and raining down on an interactive dam system.
They can climb up to a treehouse and listen to the sounds of native Illinois birds before taking the river slide back down to the savanna. The museum's youngest visitors can play with stuffed animals in the early childhood corner, where they can also try on a turtle shell.
Amico's own 7-year-old visited the exhibit last weekend at the soft opening, and she said watching her daughter "light up" while exploring the beaver dam, the water table and the slide has been one of her favorite parts of seeing the playspace come to life.
The museum doubles as the Chicago Academy of Sciences, which houses teams of scientists that work in ecological restoration and research, as well as help curate the exhibits.
"Education is a core kind of tenet of everything to do with the nature museum. While this is fun and play-based, everything we have is historically accurate," Amico said. "We're infusing that real science and real species that our teams are out there studying every day with an education component plus experience."
Amico added that fostering children's connections to nature is especially important in a post-pandemic, screen-oriented world, when "you see that so many people flock to the outdoors for a sense of safety, refuge and peace."
Starting to create that early relationship is critical, Amico said, not only for mental health benefits but to create a gateway for young minds toward STEM science and other fields of learning.
"There's so many negative relationships between nature and climate change, and what we're doing -- creating this place and being a haven where we're really driving positive connectivity between humans and the natural world -- is such an exciting space to be in," Amico said.
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Hawver and Lacy Families Nature's PlaySpace
Where: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, (773) 755-5100, naturemuseum.org/
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $9 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $6 for kids, free for kids younger than 3. Free admission for all Illinois residents on Thursdays.
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.