The world we cherish and have always found beautiful is a living world, that happy interface between heaven and earth—those meters just below and just above the surface. This area is the mother of all life and mother must be healthy if her children are to be happy. She teaches her children through the elements of nature, both animate and inanimate.

We believe that, with sustained humility and dedication, we can and must pass mother nature's wisdom to our children and hope that they will do the same for their children. Knowing that our earth and our relationship with our mother is ill, we hope that the Conservation Research Institute can represent a catalyst and opportunity to move our efforts forward as people and pedagogues, humans and healers of living earth.

Naturescapes represents CRI's commitment to creating places throughout our communities to provide rich and real opportunities for our children to experience the wonder of the natural world. Naturescape designs are unique to each setting and founded on the following First Principles:

  • For children and young people, play is an expression of their own discoveries in their own time and at their own pace.
  • Unstructured play is a pathway to happiness (which is a skill) leading to greater success and a more loving individual who is healthier and lives longer.
  • A growing body of research indicates that daily experience in nature has a measurable impact on healthy child development. Playing outdoors is beneficial to children physically, emotionally, and intellectually as follows:
    • Advances physical development
    • Develops stronger powers of concentration
    • Builds confidence, independence, and self-reliance
    • Creates emotional stability through freedom to take risks
    • Encourages companionship and friendship building
    • Enables a healthy approach to demands such as courage, endurance, and strength
    • Reinforcement of the cues of nature and the real world

Fox Valley Country Day School "Kid Cove"

As you will see, Mother Nature and the students at the Fox Valley Country Day School were the real designers of this project. Kid Cove clearly evolved from a natural attraction the children had for a series of archetypal landforms found in a natural landscape connected to their playground. The landforms identified included:

  • Cave-like ravines for safety and security
  • An upland wooded plateau for exploration
  • Natural mounts for climbing
  • Island-like places for seclusion and privacy
  • Steep and shallow slopes that invited risk and adventure
  • A large open glade for running free

A day was spent observing the children at play in Kid Cove. When asked what they might like included in the design of their naturescape, to the adults surprise, their requests were minimal. The children asked for simple supplies like rope and building materials, hollow logs for tunnels, paths to move farther into the surrounding woods. And maybe a few birdhouses and tree house for observing birds and other wildlife. Ironically, their biggest concern was clearly stated as the design process began, "Please don't let the adults change Kid Cove. Please leave it the way it is."

Dr. Wilhelm conducted a site assessment and concluded that because of the constant human footprint on the land, Kid Cove will likely be vegetated by plants that can take having children constantly playing around them. Surrounding Kid Cove Wilhelm went on to discover some very special remnant areas that would need to be protected. Paths through the remnants were planned for the children so they could begin to live with the idea that some places are special and need protecting. The beginnings of a small pond attached to Kid Cove was of interest to the students as well. Dr. Wilhelm suggested the children dam the pond up to create a larger pond and encourage greater diversity of flora and wildlife for the students to explore and learn about.

The school setting allowed for the initiation of a school herbarium to engage the students in the fundamental understanding of their "place" by learning their flora, the idea of stewardship, and community awareness and responsibility. All ages were embedded in the development of the herbarium by appealing to the gifts each age has ready to learn about the natural world. For example:

  • Pre-school through 1st grade, the "Empathizers" would be the collectors and "Lookouts" for new plants and animals.
  • 2nd through 4th grade, the "Explorers" would be the caretakers of the grounds.
  • 5th through 8th grades, "The Advocates" would become the voice to the community of the importance of caring for our natural systems.

In the end, the adults were moved to see that Kid Cove represented a "village" not just an outdoor environment or a congregation of structures but an actual "village" with a social dynamic emerging. The children had named the place and, in fact, established a court with a judge to determine how wrongdoings were to be handled. Indeed, it was a small society constructed by and for children with no adult supervision preferred. The task of creating the village actually provided the students with a kind of laboratory experience in becoming an adult.

Akakwaa the Potatwatomi word for "Edge of the Woods"

The Akakwaa naturescape is the inspiration of a Waukesha, Wisconsin community leader with a passion and deep respect for our Mother Earth. The effort is in memory of her parents who taught her the love of the out-of-doors along with the understanding that it is the responsibility of the adults to pass the love and understanding of nature on to our children.

The Akakwaa Naturescape is also part of a larger restoration plan taking place simultaneously with the hope that the children will eventually have acres of nature to enjoy. Approximately 10 acres of wetlands, woods, and prairie are in the third year of an intensive restoration plan. Dr. Wilhelm's latest site assessment confirmed 239 native species had been found within the restoration with new flora appearing every year thanks in great part to yearly burns. The abundant wildlife is impressive as well, with surrounding landscape home to Wild Turkey, White-tailed Deer, Killdeer, Sand Hill Cranes, and a rare yellow ant, Lasius minutus, to name a few.

On one of the high, dry spots in this parkland, an acre has been set aside to unearth a naturescape for children of all ages to play freely in open, natural spaces. The wonder evolving from this design is due, in great part, to the incredibly talented colloquium assembled by Creative Director, Margot Mazur, (said to be one of her favorite jobs as a creative director). The talent included a botanist, a designer and artist, a landscape architect, a sculptor and metalsmith, an earth mover, plantsman, and restorationist, a well digger, a forester, a land fill trucker, an historian, an illustrator, a wildlife artist, a community organizer and her students, and a very gutsy tow truck driver.

The design is intended to provide children with opportunities to experience… pathways through natural settings, water play, places to dig and build and plant, vistas and refuges, places to climb, roll down, and run through, magical places for make-believe, places for contemplation and learning through experiencing, AND an adventure filled climb on the 200 year old, 4 foot in diameter White Oak tree you see pictured above waiting to be moved on to the giant sandpit at Akakwaa.

Morningstar Montessori's Classroom in Nature and of Nature's Ways

"It is necessary for a child's psychical development to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly educating forces of living nature." Maria Montessori

Dr. Montessori placed a great emphasis on nature and nature education. She felt that the outdoor environment should be an extension of the classroom and that is precisely the intention of this naturescape.

The Morningstar Montessori naturescape was literally build on a former children's playground that was blacktopped and surrounded by a chain link fenced. Now, thanks to Maria Montessori and to our clients, it is a place of wonder and beauty and a place where children can be educated in nature and about nature's ways.

The natural play area is intended for preschoolers with a mound that seems like a mountain to them, gardens to plant and tend, sand to write, play and dig in, smells, sounds and the taste of an occasional edible, a rock garden with a water fountain, ground coverings and grasses for crawling through, places to explore, hide, and play house, and all surrounded by arbors and fencing covered in vines. A place of magic and mystery in the eye of a child.

To help the children see how a resource like water can be celebrated and reused, water from the roof of the school is being collected to water the children's perennial and vegetable gardens. And, a green roof will hang over a section of the naturescape to provide shade as well as grow herbs for the natural meals served at this special place for the little children of Cedarburg, Wisconsin.

CRI is a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization