Kids encouraged to interact with nature at Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve

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Angela Belli, director of the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve at St. Vincent College, says studies have shown that regular contact with nature improves children's ability to learn and grow -- not only physically and developmentally but in relation to the natural world. It is a concept the reserve has embraced.

"When we first opened in 2007, we noticed that one of our biggest audiences were families with children between the ages of birth and 7 years old," Mrs. Belli said. "We then looked at our landscape and decided to create some safe play spaces for these children."

With 50 acres in the reserve, planners set aside about an acre in two sections of property near the parking lot, where children and their families could interact with the natural world. With the help of Eagle Scouts and many other community volunteers, the play areas began to take shape.

At the same time, Mrs. Belli learned of the Nature Explore Classroom, a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. The program addresses the disconnect between children and nature and works to establish a network of organizations that create effective nature-based outdoor learning environments for children.

"This got the wheels at the reserve turning, and we began planning to apply for certification," Mrs. Belli said. "The project was four years in the making. We made application for certification [from the program] in June of this year, and on Aug. 20, we received notification that our application was approved."

With additional help from the Scouts and volunteers and a $2,500 donation from the Rotary Club of Latrobe, the reserve now has 11 areas where children and their families can safely interact with nature in a number of ways.

A music and movement area called Outdoor Rhythm, for instance, lets children take sticks and run them through the posts of a "musical fence" or beat on flower pots and other materials that make natural musical sounds.

In the Animal Acrobat area, they can walk through a maze of trees, climb ladders, explore a lean-to, play on a balance beam and take turns on the swings. In the garden area, they can learn about native plants, play aqua detective in the water and scavenge for twigs, pine cones, leaves and stones to create their own sculptural piece.

The reserve also has plans to add a tree house platform and putt-putt golf in the fall.

"All the areas are structured to guide children and families to explore nature," Mrs. Belli said.

The cost of installing all the Nature Explore Classroom components came to roughly $10,000, with $2,500 coming from the Rotary and the remainder from the reserve's operational budget.

"The Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve has shown tremendous leadership in growing the next generation of environmental stewards," said Susie Wirth, Nature Explore Outreach director. "Their commitment to providing research-based and nature-rich learning offers a wonderful example to educators throughout the country."

The reserve is named for Winnie Palmer, wife of golf legend Arnold Palmer, who served on the board of directors for Saint Vincent College for years. Mrs. Palmer loved to look out across the overgrown field next to Route 981 to see the Saint Vincent Basilica and College, a place where she'd fostered many friendships through her involvement with philanthropic endeavors.

The parcel of land could easily have been developed, but to her, developing the land would indelibly smudge the scenery. The nature reserve was only a thought, but after her death in 1999 at the age of 65, her family and friends began seeking funds to see her dreams come true and help preserve the view of Saint Vincent that she had loved so much. In 2000, the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve was incorporated and began to become a reality.

The Nature Explore Classroom at the reserve, located between Route 30 and Route 981 at 744 Walzer Way in Latrobe, is free and open from dawn to dusk. For more information: 724-537-5284.

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Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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