One-of-a-kind play area opens Saturday at Audubon Center


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

John Spencer, a volunteer with the Yellowstone River Parks Association, and Trinity Pierce, the land stewardship coordinator at the Montana Audubon Center, work on the irrigation system for the center’s new Shepard Nature Play Space on Monday.

Darcie Howard, director of the Montana Audubon Center, was not impressed when she first heard about something called a “nature play space.”

The center’s mission is to get children out into nature, into the wild, so creating a manmade “natural area” didn’t seem like a very good idea.

“I was a little turned off by it at first,” she said. That was a couple of years ago. She heard a lot more about the concept last summer, when she attended a meeting of nature center directors in Michigan. In time, she said, she came to understand and embrace the idea.

Billings-area residents will be able to judge for themselves starting this Saturday, when a ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for the Shepard Nature Play Space just south of the Audubon’s big wet lab building at 7026 S. Billings Blvd., which adjoins Norm’s Island.

The one-acre play space will have a culvert tunnel and balance beams, boulders, huge bird nests that can be disassembled and rearranged, a “music corner” with a mahogany drum in the shape of a turtle, a sledding hill and plenty of room just to explore and play with natural materials.

Howard said the area will give children a compact, accessible—it’s also accessible to people with disabilities—play space that can serve as a portal to the wider world of nature.

“One of the reasons kids don’t go out in woods and play is because parents don’t think it’s safe,” Howard said.

The nature area will also be good for the Audubon Center, Howard said. The center serves 5,000 people a year through its various programs, “but we don’t have a lot of foot traffic here.” She hopes that will change with the nature area, which will be open free of charge during daylight hours seven days a week.

It will also tie in with a new offering next fall: the Fledgling Nature Preschool, which will be offered from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Kids who attend the preschool will spend 80 percent of their time outside, regardless of the weather.

“There is no bad weather, just bad clothing,” Howard said.

Planning for the play space began last summer at a brainstorming session involving City Council members, Audubon Center staff and community members. Those plans were refined and formalized by Peaks to Plains Design, and they continue to be tweaked.

Howard said some changes have arisen from watching how kids use the space, which they have been doing since the first bit of dirt-moving began. One feature involved wooden dowels attached to a log, the idea being that kids would slip pieces of wood with holes drilled in the middle over the dowels. But some of the young visitors quickly snapped the dowels off and used them for a swordfight.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Montana Audubon Center Director Darcie Howard stands in the middle of the new Shepard Nature Play Space.

“OK, lesson learned, right?” Howard said. New plans call for much smaller dowels, to make them less tempting.

The cost of the project came to about $63,000. Howard said she raised all the money needed in a capital campaign, and an extra $8,000 collected was put into a reserve account for maintenance and upgrades at the site.

The main donor was Nick Cladis, the owner of Cladis Investment Advisory. The play space was named for his grandson, Shepard, who lives in Colorado. Howard said the 4-year-old will be at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday.

Other major donors included Phillips 66, the Harry L. Willett Foundation and the Billings West Rotary. Good Earth Works, which did the earth-moving to prepare the site, also donated a good portion of its services, Howard said.

Most of the remaining work was done by 182 volunteers who turned out to help on April 18 as part of the center’s Earth Day observances.

The Montana Audubon Center, developed in partnership with the Yellowstone River Parks Association, is located on a 54-acre site that used to be a gravel mine.

The ribbon-cutting will begin Saturday morning at 11 with an introduction and thank-yous from Howard and Cladis. After the ceremony, the play area will be officially opened to the public.

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