Kalamazoo's Children's Nature Playscape adds sensory appeal for reopening this spring

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

When the Children’s Nature Playscape on Bronson Park reopens this spring, families will have even more natural enhancements to enjoy in downtown Kalamazoo with the completion of Phase 2 of the project.

Nearly 100 people gathered in support of the formal groundbreaking back in March of 2022, three years after the project began when the First Congregational Church funded the purchase of the property, razing of the church, and necessary site preparation at the 130-foot square greenspace at 302 Academy Street by Bronson Park.

The Playscape will be open on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, starting May 8.More than 1,800 families from Kalamazoo and the surrounding area visited the Children’s Nature Playscape during its first season, from its opening last July through the Halloween weekend.

Phase Two additions 

Phase Two construction started in late March and entailed replanting or invigoration of some of the playspace’s native plants to encourage the vegetation to eventually form its own prairie land, regenerating itself, says the playscape’s new executive director, Nora Seilheimer. Once that is achieved, “it doesn't require a lot of upkeep as a typical landscaping project might,” she says. “It’s just like Mother Nature, just kind of keeping itself going without a whole lot of human involvement.”

The Children's Nature Playscape will open with new additions Saturday, May 6 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.Three nature-inspired musical instruments will also be installed during this phase — a thunder drum, a chime fence, and an amadina — rather like a vertical xylophone.

In between the instruments, a “sensory garden”—plants chosen for their sensory values of scent, texture, sound, or color—will be positioned.

Less glamorous but of vital interest to parents, is the installation of an eco-friendly “Portland Loo” stand-alone bathroom. 

“I have a two-year-old at home so I know how important that is,” Seilheimer says. The bathroom will include a baby-changing station. 

The Children's Nature Playscape is a place for children and families to "explore, grow, and restore" in Downtown Kalamazoo.Finally, Phase Two includes a performance pavilion for visiting musicians, storytellers, or other family entertainment.

There will be open seating so families can sit down and enjoy any kind of entertainment, and teachers may take advantage of having that performance pavilion to incorporate the playscape into any of their plans for classroom projects, Seilheimer says.

Building on Phase One

The new features will bolster the popular features already available at the playscape, such as the interactive water feature, a shallow stream with its own biofiltration system that invites kids to play and splash in the running water, just as they would in a natural stream.

Water features, sand, and rocks abound at Children's Nature Playscape on Bronwon Park.“The stream runs downhill and…we love for them to take their shoes off and get in there barefoot and feel the water underneath their feet, to splash around,” Seilheimer says. She says children may say, “‘Look at the rock! Look at the way the water runs over the rocks,” or notice how the water goes at different speeds, or they may put a leaf in the water and watch it be carried by the water. 

The goal is to allow children the experience of interacting with nature with curiosity and fun.

What’s next for the playspace?

This season, organizers will watch to see how families interact with this space and let that guide what may come next, Seilheimer says. “Do we want to keep some of the area open, so that they can have a little bit more space to do their own thing, do their own exploration? We want to see first how families interact with that open space — first and foremost, we want kids to come and explore and have their imaginations be a big part of how they're interacting with nature” rather than be guided by structure, she says.

The enclosed Children's Playscape allows cihldren freedom and safety to roam with adult supervision.“If kids are responding well to having that open space and doing their own thing and interacting with the space in a way we couldn't have possibly imagined, then we definitely want to keep that open so they have those opportunities,” Seilheimer adds. “We'll be looking for some community feedback before we move on to any kind of phase three development.”

One piece of feedback that’s already been heeded — “people just wanted us to be open more hours,” Seilheimer says. “So I am really excited that we'll be adding more hours this summer.”

The playscape will open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and again from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Wednesdays will be reserved for the playscape’s community partners or neighborhood associations who are looking for an opportunity to be in the space with their own community on their own terms, Seilheimer says.
The calendar is still being finalized but the playscape will periodically be open on Saturdays as well and possibly for special events, especially anything that's going on at Bronson Park.

What’s next?

Now that the playscape is up and running, organizers are focused on transitioning from being a project to becoming an organization — “less focused on the space itself and a little bit more focused on the team of people who are going to be nurturing this project into a community offering,” Seilheimer says.

She invites anyone who is moved by this project, or connected to the idea of getting young people and families out into nature, to come onto the space and talk to her about how they can get more involved. 

“Because eventually, we're gonna need a team of paid staff to keep this thing going and keep families engaged,” she says. “I'm excited to see how many more people can get their hands on this project so it truly continues to be a representation of the community at large.”

About the new executive director 

Nora Seilheimer is the new Executive Director of Children's Nature Playscape.Seilheimer is a graduate of  Kalamazoo College. She worked as a special education teacher for six years in Chicago before moving to New Orleans to pursue her Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She worked there with the nonprofit Project Peaceful Warrior to bring yoga and mindfulness programming into schools, eventually becoming that group’s executive director. 

She and her husband returned to Kalamazoo last fall to raise their family.

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Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.