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There are lots of great options for outdoor play in Richmond. A newer one that you may not have encountered yet is the Playscape at Hayes Arboretum. A series of hands-on activities, stations and outdoor experiences built almost entirely from natural or found materials, it’s a place for kids (and grown-ups too!) to engage with and learn about the natural world. And it’s free.
I sat down with two of the people most responsible for bringing the Playscape to life, retired teacher Lisa Burkhardt and Hayes Arboretum Executive Director Steve Hayes Jr. We discussed how the Playscape came to be, the importance of giving kids lots of opportunities to play outdoors, and how the Arboretum is continuously evolving to serve the community.
The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.
Chris Hardie: How did the Playscape come into existence?
Lisa Burkhardt: Probably two and a half years ago. I heard that Hayes Arboretum was interested in developing a Playscape, and I wanted to be a part of that, because I feel really strongly that that’s an important thing for children to be exposed to. And just wanted to volunteer my time as best I could.
What I started off with – because I didn’t even really know what a Playscape would look like – and how to create one, was researching and … But, the staff at the Arboretum had also done some researching too.
We went on a few field trips, traveled to Indianapolis, over towards the Dayton area, stuff we could do within a day’s period of time. We did spend one really long day going all the way to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and saw several Playscapes along the way.
We had these routes mapped out so we could see as many as we could. Took lots of pictures, lots of notes. And came back and looked at the space here, and decided what features we wanted to include, and how it could get done. Then Steve has to come in with his big equipment to get things just laid out and started.
Steve Hayes, Jr: Yeah, my background is in landscape architecture. I’ve worked here at the Arboretum … this is my 10th year. Our staff had been talking about a Playscape, and they were researching some grant funding. And the grant funding came in very quickly. We have some great grant funding partners: Reid Health, Community Benefit, and Wayne County Foundation jumped on board to help with the Playscape.
At the time, we had ideas. We had some rough plans. We kind of knew generally what we wanted. But it was really working with Lisa and seeing some of these other Playscapes, like she said that exist in our region. Then from over in Ohio to up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
We looked at a lot of different Playscapes. I had never designed a Playscape. But I love guidelines. When we were talking about the Playscape, for me trying to understand what all it was – what were the design elements, how were these kids and their parents interacting with nature? What were the different zones like? What were the requirements?
We looked at a group called Nature Explore, which is a company that specializes in Playscapes. We knew early on that we wanted to be a certified outdoor classroom Playscape, and meet all the criteria to be certified; that’s a national certification.
We were fortunate that throughout this process, we kept that in mind. We were willing and able to put forth the effort and the expense – because there were expenses – that were supported through the community, to really get to a space that is intriguing for the children, a great learning environment, and a great amenity to have here at the Arboretum.
Chris: I know when a lot of people think of outdoor play for kids, the first thing that comes to mind might be big steel and plastic structures: brightly colored, rubber mulch arounds, maybe some fountains. And we have some of those in Richmond, and they’re great. But what’s the difference between that kind of an outdoor play space and a Playscape? Both in terms of what it looks like and how it works? Then also, sort of the philosophy behind it?
Lisa: All the materials that are used are from the Arboretum. They’re all natural, they’re logs and stones and some of the things got brought in. Some big stones and things, but nothing’s man made out there, except one little short slide. But it’s elevated on a log.
The idea behind it is that that there are so many different textures and levels, that children really have to use every part of their brain and senses to negotiate the area. Not in a dangerous way at all, but just in an exploratory type of way.
As on a regular playground, the surfaces are all smooth and the steps are all the same distance apart. There’s not a whole lot of testing that needs to be done from a kid’s standpoint.
The thing I like about our Playscape, that I really found is different and unique from some of the other ones we saw, is that it’s large. It’s covered with grass. But there are lots of trees around. And there are comfortable seating for parents in so many areas. But it really doesn’t matter what area you sit down in, or choose to be in. You can see every one of the features, from any spot you’re in, and keep an eye on your kids.
There’s a nice perimeter that I don’t think even is, the kids don’t even notice it. It’s just made by the trees that are bounding the area. It all seems logical to both the parents and the children, where they can be in that space and be safe. At the same time, challenging themselves, yes, to be with nature.
Chris: You both have experience observing kids learning inside. The Arboretum has an indoor education center. Steve, you’ve been a part of building that, and making that great. And Lisa, you had a lot of time in the classroom as a teacher for a long time.
But this has such a focus on outdoor learning experiences. I wonder what you notice about the way that kids learn when they’re inside, when they’re in a classroom, or reading something or looking at a display, versus how they learn and what they experience when they’re outside. What kinds of things do you see that are different? And what does that mean?
Lisa: A lot of times in the classes here, at the Arboretum, we start with a topic. Sometimes with actually reading a small, short book. But that’s just a springboard for the rest of the lesson that’s going to take part the rest of the day.
As the instructor, you have to be open to all different kinds of ideas that the children are going to bring. You can’t really plan, I guess, what they’re going to find or see or be interested in as you walk down the trail.
For instance, I was just working with a group of pre-kindergarten students that were interested in birds. That was supposed to be the focus of the class. But, they picked up rocks and nuts and leaves and saw flowers, and things along the trail. I just have to be ready as the instructor to engage in all those other opportunities with them, because that’s what they were ready and interested in to learn.
Steve: The Playscape is a great interactive hands-on learning experience for the kids, and parents. But it’s a great transition for them to go explore. One more element that existed before the actual construction of the Playscape was the tipi structure. One of the things about the Playscape, they love kind of what they call the building, with natural elements.
It was interesting, this tipi structure, had been built by a previous summer class. When we started planning the Playscape, it was easy just to say, “All these elements we want to include, we want these to be our border elements. We want to add areas into this area … what’s now going to be the Playscape area. It was interesting; right in the middle was this tipi. Yeah, it’s definitely evolved, and it will continue to evolve.
Lisa: Yeah, there’s a Pinterest page that we’re all part of, that has ideas that we’ve taken from lots of other places to see what else we want to add in.
I think that a lot of families don’t realize it’s there, because it is behind the annex. There’s a sign, but you have to be in a certain part of the parking lot to even see it. I just want families to know that they’re free to use that any time that the Arboretum’s open.
Chris: That’s great. A parent myself, free opportunities to help a child learn and also burn off some energy, are always in high demand. It’s just so great that it’s there. The Arboretum has such great hours and availability. Makes itself available to the community, no cost, you can drive right in. It’s just incredible.
I want to make sure we don’t take for granted the idea that engagement with the natural world is just an important thing in a child’s development, because I think the three of us sitting here probably know that. Both of you, your existence, your work, has had that idea built into it.
But if you could say a little bit more about why is it important that children, adults, all people of all ages, are engaged with the natural world … children especially though, as they’re learning about how the world works? Why is that an important thing, and how is the Playscape help in that?
Lisa: One aspect of the children’s development is definitely physical; I think I touched on that a little bit about having them learn how to balance and walk on areas that aren’t totally smoothed out for them to begin with. They have to figure all that stuff out.
I’ve done a lot of research and reading on other outdoor preschools, and the kind of curriculum they use, or the kind of things they do to encourage children to engage. Because sometimes, they’re afraid. It’s different, it doesn’t look like home, it’s not smooth and soft and bug free for them.
One of the things they caution instructors, or even parents, to say to their kids is, “Oh, be careful. Be careful.” That’s a no-no, because you’re not being specific about what to do.
You just ask children questions. If it looks like to you they’re going to get themselves involved in a place that’s not potentially safe, that you ask them, “How do you feel? Do you feel like you’re going to be able to handle this?”
You don’t help them climb up on to something tall, because then they will have to get help getting down. You might not be available or something, and they could get hurt.
But just allow children to explore on their own. Just by asking them questions about how they’re feeling about their body in that space, and that’s going to let them develop.
Then another area is developing immunities against germs and allergies and things. I just was listening to a podcast about a study that’s been out for a while. That from the ages of zero to four, is the most important time to have your children be exposed … but not to viruses and bacteria. We have medicine and vaccinations for that. To be exposed to non-harmful microorganisms in nature. That’s where you come into contact with them, is with the dirt and the leaves and animals. The Arboretum’s Playscape gives them a perfect opportunity to do that.
Steve: As a youngster, you learn about all these cycles. You learn about the rock cycle and the air cycle and water cycles. And you start seeing relationships of how the environment works.
I think in one of the most general senses, there’s a definite relationship between us as a human species and the earth. We depend on all the resources that we have at our disposal. The natural resources. Then the earth and the resources depend on us to be proper stewards of the resources we have.
Good stewards of our air quality and water quality, soil quality, plant health. It’s something that’s definitely generational. Trees help show us that. The Arboretum’s fortunate to have roughly 60 acres, or 3% of the state’s old-growth trees. One of the sayings is, “When you plant a tree, you’re not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for your kids and your grandkids.”
We want good stewards at all age levels. But when you engage the youngest of our society, you’re then engaging not only those children, but hopefully their children and their grandchildren. Good environmental stewardship, a good appreciation for what we have, I think comes from interacting and learning about it, and of course not being afraid of it.
It used to be – and this is just a few years ago – when the hot topic was childhood obesity. It was getting children to go outside and play to help combat childhood obesity.
It’s still an issue, but what seems to be even more prevalent these days is screen time. Children having their lives dominated in their free time by looking at a computer screen.
That’s something that, as a society, is not going to go away. But I think to take a break from that – and our Playscape is a tech-free zone. We want the kids to be busy with interacting with the natural elements. You’ll find that when they’re doing that, and they’re expending their energy and they’re having a good time, they’re not on the screen.
But interacting with nature, not being afraid of it, not being afraid of the unknown, helps them to segue out into hopefully looking for other opportunities that they might have to experience nature. Maybe closer to their house, or around our community, or even later in life. And they’ll remember, “Hey, I went to a class at the Hayes Arboretum and I hugged a tree when I was a youngster.”
Lisa: One of the features that I especially like that we have out there on the Playscape is our water feature. We knew from visiting other places that that was going to be really important. But we couldn’t really figure out how to get it incorporated. And it’s quite a distance away from the mud kitchen, because the best place to put it is back at the far edge.
The only way we could do the water, really, was through rain barrels that are up against the buildings. But there’s not a better way to teach kids that you can collect this free water. You don’t want to drink it, so we have a sign there about it.
But, it works perfectly well to mix in with sand and dirt and paint the wooden turtles and the rocks that are out there. It encourages them also to move, because they have to walk across the distance to get from the rain barrel to the mud kitchen, or to the turtles.
They learn how to turn on that spigot themselves; even four-year-olds can handle it all by themselves. It’s not a hard thing to do. But, it kind of teaches them that.
Chris: I wonder if we could take a minute to step back and just hear from each of you about your background, and how you ended up here in this moment. What you’ve done, personally and professionally, that led you to being involved in this project, and why it became something that was important to you. … Who wants to start?
Steve: So, my background is in landscape architecture. Went to University of Georgia, and then worked for a couple of years up in Virginia, and then four-and-a-half years in Baltimore.
There was some positions that had opened here at the Arboretum, and I figured I could make a great impact here. I saw a lot of potential, as I still do, with our organization. Of course, it’s definitely close to home. My dad works here as well. The rest of our family are kind of scattered around the country.
But I felt with my background and connection to the environment and passion for the organization, that it was a fantastic opportunity that I didn’t want to turn down.
I felt that opportunity may not be around again, for whatever reason. We could find a good staff, so when the opportunity provided itself, I went ahead and accepted, and moved out here. That was 10 years ago.
When I started here for the first four years, I was working on building and grounds. The past four or five years, I’ve been doing more administrative, as the executive director.
There are definitely days when I wish I was still out on a mower or a tractor or helping with our grounds. But, I do really enjoy … it’s definitely additional responsibility, and a different perspective, being in a leadership role here.
But I continue to be amazed at the resources we have in Wayne County. The networking, the partnerships, and in a leadership role with any organization, but especially here, you do get to talk about all the good things that we do here at the Arboretum. But then, look for those connections to grow the organization, and have an outlook that really is more than just the day to day.
Hopefully, we’re setting great five-year goals, and even longer-term goals. Hopefully, we’re inspiring our staff, inspiring our visitors to be good stewards, and really making a great impact on the community we live in.
Lisa: I got involved as a recently retired science teacher, and had taught several lots of other subjects. But mostly eighth-grade science and have just been always interested in environmental issues.
It was part of the statewide curriculum that I had to teach, and always enjoyed how interested students would be in issues that I brought up, that impact their lives and their future.
Then once I was retired, and knew I wanted to spend as much time as I could outdoors, because that’s just an interest of mine. The Arboretum’s really good about allowing me to work here, and do what I enjoy doing.
And of course, I feel like educating children is one of the best things I could do. I still have a passion for that.
Chris: What would you say … Playscape, or just more broadly … is one of the common misconceptions that people have about the Arboretum as a place to come? Because I think it’s easy to simplify it and say, “Well, it’s just a bunch of trees. You can walk through the trees and that’s it.”
But it’s a place with so many different experiences, so many different options. The landscape is sprawling and varied. For anyone who’s spent time here, they may start to get a sense of all that you can do here.
But when you’re out in the community, talking about this place and what’s possible, what’s the thing that you have to keep reminding people of, or changing their perceptions of?
Steve: The two that I hear most often are, one, they don’t realize that we are free. Lots that we have is free to experience out here. The hiking trails, the mountain bike trails, the nature center, that’s all free. Crafts in the nature center.
We do have some programs that have a small cost to them. Our auto tour does have a $5 fee per car. But just to come out here and go for a hike, which is the number one thing that people enjoy about the property, it’s free and open to the public year-round.
We used to be closed for the winter months. But we’re open and accessible year-round. Then on the east side of the property, we’re open dawn to dusk, seven days a week. That’s kind of the first thing: that we’re open, accessible, and free.
The other thing is, just the amount of amenities we have. I think people don’t realize what all we have to offer. And they kind of sometimes, I hear an attitude of, “Well, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it.” And I say, “When was the last time?” And we’ll talk. “Well, it was 20 years ago.”
Well, a lot has changed, and hopefully, we will continue to change as the community and the needs of our community continue to evolve over time. We serve the community. Hopefully, we never stop evolving and changing to meet the needs of the people we serve. I think the Playscape is a fantastic example of that.
Lisa: As a volunteer, I’ve learned so much more about it. Just being on the grounds, and I’ve always come over here. But just being on the grounds more, you see something new all the time.
The wildflower prairie is a nice new addition on the east side. And just the work that volunteers have done, eradicating non-native invasive species here, is something that’s environmentally conscious, and on everybody’s minds right now too, that are involved with the environment.
And leading a class of preschoolers? Just opens my eyes to so many different things that I just would have walked past, I think. But just pointing those things out to them, and looking for things they might be interested in, and just listening to what they find when they’re walking through here.
All the seasons … There’s so many different things to see here. There are streams and ponds and prairies, as well as the trees, that I think people already know about. But just the variety of habitats, makes for a unique place right in town.
Chris: So, what’s the next big project for the Arboretum, or beyond the Playscape? What would you tackle next, either in this vein of outdoor play and education, or other parts of your mission?
Lisa: I keep sending Steve pictures of a rope-climbing spider web kind of a feature. I mean, just the rope is expensive, to get the quality that you need that’s going to weather through all seasons out there. Then figuring out where to fasten it up. But I think it would be a great thing for kids to have to climb on.
Steve: Yeah, I like the water element. We talked about maybe trying to get the water actually closer to the mud kitchen.
In our community outreach board, which is our local board that helps the Arboretum, they suggested some, kind of along the same lines of getting the word out there, some marketing. They suggested drone footage; so we’re working on trying to find somebody that can help us with drone footage.
But I think it’s really finding great ways to get the word out there. Sometimes we are told we are a hidden gem, and there are misconceptions that things out here cost money. A few things do, but by and large, Playscape’s free, and we’ve tried to be more accessible to people and things.
I love being a gem; I don’t want to be hidden. So we need to do a better job there. That’s definitely one of the things that I’m working on.
Then just to be open to new ideas, and to let people share with us. We did a survey, but it was some years ago, about what they liked most about the Arboretum. I know it was before the Playscape.
Just by surveying, I think our users and letting them know that if they have comments, suggestions, those kinds of things, we serve them. We serve our community.
Lisa: Always, one of the things that you have to balance with all of the extra features you’d like to see is keeping them maintained, then, year in and year out. That’s an issue in my own yard, in my own house, in my own gardens.
Just adding the Playscape features, then that wildflower prairie, all those things take some volunteers, a lot, to be willing to come out. And you have to know they’re going to be there, or it’ll just go by the wayside.
Chris: If someone wants to volunteer, or they have ideas, or they have a drone, or they want to give money, what’s the best way for them to learn more about the Arboretum and get in touch with you?
Steve: The web site is a fantastic resource. We went through a rebranding campaign, I guess, it was probably five years ago now. With a new web site, and our web site has volunteer information on it.
They can always call the Arboretum. Our volunteer coordinator and naturalist, Jenny Lee, is fantastic. We try to do a great job in pairing up the volunteers and their interests, with the role that we have out here that needs attention. Definitely, check out the web site, fill out a volunteer interest form there.
Chris: It’s hayesarb.org?
Steve: Correct. Yeah. Hayesarb.org. They can come to the nature center, fill out a form there, or call us if they want to give a call out here.
We looooove the playscape and come out at least once a week. Keep up the great work, guys. I love you Lisa!!!!!
Fantastic job, Lisa and Steve. All of the children and our whole community thank you.