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Children’s event and educational project celebrate the benefits of nature play

bog and wetlands pedestrian path
Photos: Terri Allard / VPM

Wildrock, a nonprofit organization that connects families to the outdoors, is partnering on a project with the Albemarle Garden Club, Charlottesville Parks and Recreation and VPM to celebrate the benefits and importance of nature play.

"Looking at the research, it is inspiring to see that we can do so much to promote children’s brain development, and social and emotional skills just by getting them outside to play,” said Carolyn Schuyler, Wildrock’s executive director. “Kids engrossed in imaginary worlds in nature are growing their creativity, collaboration skills and critical thinking. And they are having fun, one of the best forms of stress relief.”

Funded in part by a grant from the Garden Club of America, the three-year project includes free, annual nature-themed family events.

The Children’s Festival Down by the Bog, this year’s inaugural event, will take place at the preschool playground and bog garden at the lower section of Booker T. Washington Park from 2 to 5 p.m. Oct. 22.

The project, which includes the revitalization of the existing bog garden created by AGC about two decades ago, was initiated by the group when it approached Wildrock to help connect schools and the public to the garden.

“There's a component of the garden club where [former club cochairperson] Melville Krebs has developed a middle school curriculum that the local science teachers can use in this garden,” said Dana Harris, AGC’s current co-chairperson.

“The kids love being here,” Harris said. “And the teachers love having an experience that's close.”

The park garden is located within walking distance of two schools and several Charlottesville neighborhoods. Visiting students learn about ecosystems, the levels of a forest, the environmental factors that create a bog or wetland and the plants that thrive in this setting.

“This bog garden, this incredible natural resource, is sitting right in the middle of the city,” said Chris Gensic, park and trail planner for Charlottesville Parks & Rec. “Venable [Elementary] School is right up the hill. So, a teacher who has limited time and capacity may not be able to drive out to Ragged Mountain to show them the forest. But here's the forest right here, literally in their backyard.”

AGC members acknowledge that the garden should technically be called a wetland garden, “But bog garden has just stuck,” said Harris.

According to the EPA, “Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.”

AGC has worked for the past several years to remove invasive species and recently added 800 native plants, including ferns, Blue Flag iris, viburnums and Joe Pye weed — a pollinator-friendly plant that provides nectar for the solitary bees in the garden’s bee hotel.

Multiple volunteers pitched in to help with additional improvements. The Blue Ridge Area Builders Association rebuilt the steps leading from the garden to the upper park area. A member of the Burley Restoration Project and students from the Darden School of Business joined Parks & Rec staff to help AGC clear out brush, spread mulch along paths around the garden, and add rocks in areas to prevent erosion.

bog garden volunteers

VPM provided an additional educational aspect to the project by creating colorful permanent signage for the preschool playground featuring The Basics — a messaging campaign developed by Dr. Ronald Ferguson, of the Harvard Achievement Gap Initiative.

A leading focus of VPM’s early childhood education work, The Basics highlights five fun and simple principles of engagement for boosting cognitive and social-emotional development of children, birth to age five.

“Learning begins the day a child is born. By the time a child is three, 80% of their brain has developed,” said Mary Jo Grieve, VPM director of early childhood education. “Lived experiences matter — everyday interactions help build a child’s brain and lay the foundation for future learning.”

For the past few years, VPM has worked with several partners in Charlottesville — including Child Health Partnership, City of Promise and ReadyKids — to share The Basics principles with families in the community.

“Engaging with like-minded partners helps VPM support equity in early childhood education,” said Grieve.

Wildrock — whose mission is to promote nature play for health and happiness — collaborated with VPM to create nature-themed messaging for The Basics signage, including suggestions for related activities to engage in while visiting the park.

The BAsics sign

“We are excited to extend our work in support of this initiative by connecting its messaging to the important role nature plays in early childhood development,” said Grieve. “Opportunities to engage in The Basics principles are all around us — in homes, grocery stores, while riding in a car or bus and especially in nature!”

Children’s Festival Down at the Bog attendees will enjoy The Basics Preschool Nature Walk — a short, fun visit to each of the five Basics stations leading to the garden. Families who participate in the walk will receive a free nature-themed Basics kit to take home and enjoy together.

Additional activities include Wildrock’s pop-up play station, forest storytime and garden tours where children can explore and look for hidden stone frogs.

There will also be free lemonade and Kona Ice, as well as a planting station where families can create and take home their own bouquets. Music will be provided by Jim Gagnon.

For additional information, visit the Wildrock website.