Discovering the Joys of Nature at The Grove

As the newest addition to Severson Dells Forest Preserve, this interactive playground may be just the ticket to better engaging kids and their parents with the wonders of nature.

Rope climbing structures, stumps to jump off and hollow logs to crawl through encourage physical activity.

SSomething new has emerged at Severson Dells Forest Preserve, 8786 Montague Road, in Rockford. Nestled among the trees, The Grove is a place like no other. It’s a place for exploring, connecting and creating; it’s a place for young and old alike to discover.
Modeled on national trends in nature playscapes, The Grove was designed and built to be a gateway to the wild. Don Miller, director of education for the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, says he hopes this special spot will be a bridge from indoor to outdoor free play experiences. Like many parents and educators, Miller is concerned about statistics documenting that most children spend most of their time indoors and seldom play outdoors in nature. Recent research indicates that unstructured play in nature is critical to children’s development – physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
“By playing outdoors here, we hope people of all ages will benefit,” says Miller. “The more you go outdoors and play with your child, the more likely your child is to develop comfort being outdoors and an appreciation for nature and lifelong outdoor recreation.”
Fear is often the obstacle that needs to be overcome by both adults and children in order to enjoy natural areas, says Miller. He frequently encounters parents who don’t feel comfortable letting their children run free in the forest preserves. Some children are afraid simply because it’s unfamiliar territory.
Nature playscapes like The Grove offer the opportunity to transition from playing indoors with electronics to playing actively and imaginatively outdoors. The Grove is designed to allow abundant space for active play within a contained area. Log benches and low walls create a park-like setting so that adults can relax while keeping an eye on children as they play. Pockets of native plantings provide opportunities to enjoy native grasses and flowers and observe the birds and insects they attract.
“We wanted this to be less like a constructed playground and more like an invitation to play and explore in a safe, natural setting,” says Tom Hartley, director of land development for the forest preserve. Hartley created The Grove’s conceptual plan based on principals developed by the Nature Explore program, a collaborative project of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation that was developed in response to the growing disconnect between children and nature.
At The Grove, individual pods and their contents were created by two Rockford-area artists, David Stocker and Drew Helge. The creative vision that they injected into the construction process resulted in a place that is as much about creative expression as it is about nature exploration.
Stocker, a professional musician and children’s music camp director, incorporated creative sound exploration throughout the pods. “This is a place where children and adults can come to listen to the songs of the woods and sing back to her,” Stocker explains.
Helge, a sculptor, built flowing lines of motion and energy into The Grove’s components and overall configuration.
“I looked at the whole space as a sculpture to nestle into nature’s backdrop,” Helge says. “We shaped the stage and the pods to blend into the treetops arching overhead.” Helge calls one tree that was intentionally left standing in the music pod “the Dancing Tree,” because of its graceful, twisting trunk.
The Grove’s builders predict that the nature playscape will be most enjoyed by children ages 4 to 11.
Interconnected by winding mulch paths, each of the five pods provides a different type of interactive activity. The music pod features mounted piano strings, drums, sound tubes and other percussion. The art pod, also known as the messy materials area, offers a sandbox with rakes, stone surfaces for drawing and painting, and stone walls for painting “graffiti” with water. A quaint little house stores a diverse supply of art materials that can be utilized for special projects.
The tree fort pod begins with several raised wooden platforms that can be transformed into hideaways using colorful fabric and large strips of tree bark. The fabric often becomes capes for royalty and superheroes. Most of the climbing takes place in a pod that features gigantic fallen logs for scrambling over, crawling under and jumping off. Hollow logs are spaces to crawl through or hide within.
The centerpiece of The Grove is a stage covered by an elegant and arcing pergola made of branches and wood. This is the performance area. Miller envisions the stage as being the catalyst for impromptu performances by visiting children, as well as the setting for programmed events. Severson Dells often hosts live music concerts, and this unique stage with the inviting expanse of lawn in front has become a popular outdoor venue. Children may picnic, cavort and befriend caterpillars while adults relax and take in outstanding musical performances.
The Grove was built primarily of natural materials. Benches are made from split logs. Painting surfaces are slabs of granite in notched branches. Drums are hollow logs covered with hide. Building blocks are polished branch segments and pinecones. Helge and Stocker scoured the region to find natural and repurposed materials with which to build.
“We searched for just the right pieces that would be functional for playing and exploring,” explains Helge, “but would also be sculptural elements bringing interesting colors, shapes and textures that blend with the surrounding woods and prairies.”
Part of the fun of exploring The Grove is discovering its many unexpected artistic flourishes. Look for a stone lizard design inlaid in the stage floor. The lizard’s head points true north.
Along with the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, major sponsors of The Grove include the Kiwanis Club of Rockford, Reithmeier Family Gift Fund, Dean Alan Olson Foundation, Winnebago County, UTC Aerospace Systems Community Giving Committee and an anonymous donor.
Miller says the whole point of The Grove is to encourage families to connect with nature. This will be their gateway into the forest preserve and all the treasures it holds. The Grove is a unique spot with experiential possibilities as unlimited as the imaginations of those who visit. It’s open to the public every day, all year, from sunrise to sunset.
“You can help your child develop a love of the outdoors that will last a lifetime,” says Miller.
Jamie Johanssen is the director of marketing at Forest Preserves Winnebago County.