Ambitious Ann Arbor nature playscape to continue growth with support from major new gift

Leslie Science and Nature Center's Nature Playscape offers young visitors opportunities to invent, engineer, slide, climb, and learn in a natural setting.
Leslie Science and Nature Center's (LSNC) ambitious Nature Playscape has been slowly growing since 2019, and it's now set for further expansion thanks to a new major gift and matching challenge.
The Ann Arbor playscape offers young visitors opportunities to invent and engineer wondrous things using natural materials, use their imaginations to scurry like tunneling mice or soar like birds of prey, slide and climb to their hearts' content, and much more. 
"We're proud to be giving our community an opportunity to be outdoors in a place that's secure and welcoming and encourages exploration," says Susan Westhoff, LSNC's executive director. "It's a place where kids of all abilities can decide how much risk they want to take as they jump over logs, or are zipping down a slide."
 Leslie Science and Nature Center executive director Susan Westhoff.
Ann Arbor residents Linh and Dug Song recently buoyed the community initiative's next stages with a $150,000 gift to fund a water exploration area. The support comes from the Song Family Fund via the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. The Songs have also issued a $50,000 matching challenge for the community, which Westhoff hopes people take interest in.
She explains that the idea of a nature playscape – made, primarily, from natural items such as plants, logs, water, sand, mud, boulders, hills and trees – is to encourage risky play while exploring a natural space. 
"Risky play isn’t about kids doing unsafe activities, but being able to self-regulate and self-challenge around what they might deem challenging," Westhoff says. "Are they comfortable climbing on rocks, exploring the woods, leaping from low branches? They are learning to be independent decision-makers."  
Behind the (green) scenes
The original idea for the Nature Playscape was spurred by community need and has since evolved with residents' input at the forefront. The first seeds for the idea were planted in 2015, when LSNC staff started working on an interpretive master plan for all of their offerings. Countless city partners, community partners, LSNC staff, and volunteers have been involved in that process. Grant funding allowed LSNC to bring on world-renowned nature playscape designer Rusty Keeler in 2017, and actual construction on the multi-phase project began in 2019. 
"At the time, Rusty was the only person doing this type of work, so we brought him to town and everyone looked at what we wanted to accomplish, what everything should look like, and what our pie-in-the-sky dreams are," Westhoff says. "But throughout, we wanted to really honor what we were hearing the community wanted, and we've been very intentional about creating it."
Many community members saw potential to grow LSNC's existing natural playscape. Westhoff says many residents may not know that since the mid-2000s, a "very lovely, homegrown, and home-built" natural playscape has been "hidden in our woods for people to find in their exploration." 
Michigan Recreational Construction's Mark Carscadden and LSNC executive director Susan Westhoff. 
"A lot of people felt it was something they could see growing larger to encompass school groups or parties, and that it could be reenvisioned to be more inclusive," she says.

Refusing to leave any stone unturned, Westhoff and others toured several other local nature playscapes to make sure that LSNC's site would not duplicate anything that is already nearby. They walked away from the process with some complementary ideas, and one unique one: Free admission, thus creating a space that is inclusive to as many people as possible.
"When we started reaching out to the community, we heard from folks who live in apartments or they're living in international housing and it's lovely, but they need more," Westhoff says. "A lot of us take our backyards, our balconies, or our neighborhood parks for granted, but not every child has the same opportunities."
Watering the seeds of future growth
As LSNC receives funding, the project will expand to include more activities and areas. The Song Family Fund funding will aid in creating a play area featuring various pumps and team-controlled water mechanisms. It will be designed for children of varying physical abilities, allowing them to work together to direct the water downhill to feed a rain garden. Several community builds and community fundraising events are now in the works. 
The LSNC Nature Playscape under construction. 
Illustrating the importance of the project, Westhoff recalls a child in a wheelchair who visited the playscape this spring and didn't want to leave.
"I still cry when I remember the look on that child's face when they got to the tunnel, which is wheelchair accessible. When the other kids were moving on, they fought to stay there," Westhoff says. "There aren't as many opportunities like this for them, but we want to change that and give all our children a safe, happy place to enjoy."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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