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Museum plots new magical play area

Childrens center getting space for outdoor adventures


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sue Dixon, Portland Childrens Museum development director, talks about the new Tree Pods planned outside the museum, which designers hope will become a Portland icon.Playgrounds are invaluable spaces for kids who want to climb and slide, swing and hide.

But left to their own devices, many children will eventually forsake a jungle gym in favor of picking up sticks, climbing a tree, hunting for acorns or hiding out in the hedges.

So when Portland Children’s Museum staff members began to imagine an outdoor space for the thousands of kids who visit each year, they had one firm rule in mind: no playground equipment of any kind.

Instead, the museum’s new Outdoor Adventure area, which breaks ground next month, will tumble over the grassy, rocky slope backing up to its Portland campus next to the Oregon Zoo. Set to open in the spring of 2014, the space will feature sand pits, a stream bed, rocks to scramble up and jump off, a giant tree to climb, and a meadow to fling oneself down.

“We want kids to feel lost in the woods, like they are wilding out there," says Susan Harris MacKay, director of the Museum Center for Learning. "We want to invite children to slow down, to have support for building fairy houses and forts. We want to highlight why it is important to lay in the grass and look at the clouds.”

Countering nature deficit

In our technologically saturated and tightly scheduled world, there’s growing consensus about the need to get children outside and into natural, unplanned environments. It’s a movement that found its voice with San Diego journalist Richard Louv’s seminal book, “Last Child in the Woods,” in which he argued that kids today are at risk of “nature deficit disorder.”

Children’s museums around the country often are pegged as rainy-day destinations, MacKay says, but many are exploring new exhibits to get kids outside — with their parents in tow.

“Children’s relationship with nature is foundational for them to understand their place in the world,” she says. “It’s a place of tremendous sensory input, which is important for the developing brain — a place where you can get real smells, real feelings on your skin, real tastes and sounds. And being outside supports their sense of being able to take risks, so they know better what it means to be alive.”

The Portland Childrens Museum project is being closely watched by peer museums hoping to develop similar spaces, says Sue Dixon, the museum development director. But it’s rare for an urban children’s museum to have what Portland’s museum has: 1.3 acres of open green space.

Natural play

Landscape architect Carol Mayer-Reed, lead designer of the space, mapped out a two-tiered area. On the grassy knoll to the right of the museum, current site of picnic tables, there will be an enclosed area geared for toddlers, the size of two typical city lots. It will include a sand pit, a shallow pool of water for wading and splashing, stepping stones, a few gently bubbling fountains and places for parents to sit.

Landscaping will lean heavily on wildlife-, bird- and butterfly-attracting native plants and grasses. Mayer-Reed stresses that plants will also be chosen with an eye to hardiness — even if your kid does trample on them by accident, they will survive. You won’t, however, see many plants with thorns, or those that attract bees, and there will be none with toxic berries or toxic leaves.

Beyond the toddler section, plans call for a handicapped-accessible, stroller-friendly switchbacking pathway to traverse the slope. However, Mayer-Reed envisions plenty of kids abandoning the pathway in favor of hopscotching down the dry streambed that will wend down the hill. Along the way, kids might stop and explore around Zoom, the affectionate nickname given by the kids at the museum’s Opal Charter School to the gigantic, shady Western cedar that anchors the slope. Or youngsters could detour to a natural rock-climbing wall that leads into a grove full of natural building materials — sticks, logs and driftwood, with perhaps shovels, buckets and wheelbarrows on hand to aid with fort-building.

New Portland icon?

Down toward the bottom of the hill will be the most architecturally ambitious portion of the project, which museum officials hope will achieve iconic status in Portland, like the tram or the White Stag sign: Three interlinked and lighted “tree play pods,” connected by swinging bridges and climbing ropes.

Made of cedar shakes and perched at the tree-line, the pods resemble honeycombs, or Chinese lanterns, seed pods or cocoons. The idea, Mayer-Reed says, is to give kids “the treehouse experience — they can morph into whatever someone’s imagination might bring to it.”

She based the concept on her own experiences growing up a free-range kid in Ohio, playing with friends in the woods, building ever-more elaborate structures with whatever they could find.

“We tried to think about what kinds of organic forms kids might come up with if they were working with natural materials from their own scrap pile,” Mayer-Reed says.

At the very bottom of the fenced-in hill will be an amphitheater for outdoor concerts, classes and storytimes, a covered pavilion with a planted eco-roof, picnic tables and rest-rooms, plus a “green screen” of trees to visually shield the space from the adjacent road.

To encourage independent play, museum officials are hoping to raise enough money to build an observation deck adjacent to the museum, giving those atop it a view across the entire outdoors space. That way, kids could get lost and found on their own, even as parents keep a discrete eye out for them.

“We are encouraging parents to really let their kids be free in this space,” Dixon says.

Don’t fret about the rain

Plans also call for a new “mudroom” at the entryway to the Outdoor Adventure space. That will be full of boots and rain ponchos to borrow, an end-run around those kids who say they can’t play outside because of rainy weather.

So far, $1.3 million has been raised for the project, thanks to support from foundations and major donors, including the Oregon Community Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust and the Collins Foundation. Museum officials are now launching a public campaign to raise the remaining $1 million needed for the project.

The hope is that the new Outdoor Adventure will lift the private, nonprofit museum beyond its current status as primarily a rainy-day destination. Come summer, the museum sees a noticeable decline in visitors, says Interim Executive Director Carrie Hoops, as families peel off for the Oregon Zoo or their local park to soak up the sunshine.

The new outdoor space is also intended to make the museum more big-kid friendly too, and increase its appeal as a school field trip and birthday party destination — essentially getting as many kids outside as possible, and letting them discover at will.

“If we disconnect children from their opportunity to fall in love with the natural world, there will be no one left to care about it anymore,” Harris MacKay says. “Understanding that reliance on nature will ultimately support the sustainability of our planet.”