Building a Nature Play Area at Minnesota Valley NWR

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Staff and volunteers at the Twin Cities’ local Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge embarked on a creative endeavor to build a place for families and students to play and learn outdoors at the Old Cedar Avenue Trailhead in Bloomington, MN. 

In order to turn an old overgrown gravel pit at Old Cedar Avenue Bridge into a beautifully restored natural area, a lot of work needed to be done. First, the space needed to be cleared. Biologists, maintenance team members and even skilled wildland firefighters with chainsaws got to work removing trees. Twenty semi-truck loads of buckthorn, Siberian elm and honeysuckle, as well as cottonwood, ash and box elder were removed and donated to a local energy plant for energy production. Workers left some native tree species in the space to replicate an oak savanna habitat, one that is open with native grasses and flowers and a few trees dispersed.   

When the Old Cedar Avenue parking lot reconstruction and bridge repairs were complete in partnership with the City of Bloomington, it was time to ensure that children could enjoy this special place as much as hikers, bikers and bird watchers. 

Staff came together to dream up how the play area would eventually be used by children. Children need to run, jump and play to work off their energy but also, this is how children build lasting memories and learn about their natural surroundings. With the focus of the refuge as the background, staff formed a plan that would help children embrace the idea of the refuge as a home.  

“The refuge is a home for wildlife,” said Assistant Visitor Services Manager Cortney Solum. “It’s a home for wildlife that pass through on their longer migration journey or for those that build elaborate nests and lodges. It is also a place for people to embrace nature in their life, where anyone can come for a break from city streets and find a little adventure.” 

This is what refuge staff want children to find at the Nature Play Area, an adventurous place where they can feel at home with wildlife. Of course, it’s a gentle introduction to nature play. The space is clear and open for parents to keep watch, but vast enough for children to venture out to explore a bit.  

But, how is a natural playground made? With natural materials of course. Old, downed trees from the Bass Ponds Trailhead area just a mile north of the Old Cedar Avenue Trailhead were brought over. Large boulders from the refuge’s Rapids Lake Unit were hauled up on trailers.  

MVPs of the project, Chad Lawson and Damian Schauer, took plans for the play area and turned them into a reality. With Earth-moving equipment, they created smooth paths that parents with strollers can easily walk and even created beautiful benches for adults to take a seat while children play. 

“It isn’t often that you get the opportunity to be part of building something so unique as a nature play area” said Chad Lawson, Refuge maintenance mechanic. “I have been involved in building two now in Minnesota. After seeing the children’s excitement and curiosity ignite as they interact with and explore the nature play area, I can honestly say it has been the highlight of my career thus far.” 

Biologist Mike Malling is excited for the Nature Play Area because he enjoys the fact that families will be introduced to planting for pollinator species and prairie habitat.  

“The proximity of the play area to the native planted prairie and the wildlife that enjoy it can serve as important areas for kids and parents to learn about prairie and wildlife,” said Malling. “It's important to show families that they can also do something like this in their backyards or local parks with raised planter beds or native gardens for pollinators."

Many thanks to the hard working staff of our maintenance crew, volunteers and summer interns from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa, their technical expertise and long days clearing the space have made the play area a place that children can now use as an outdoor classroom or a place to escape into nature and even pretend to be an eagle building a nest. 

“Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a thriving urban refuge where nature connects people, wildlife and communities” said Refuge Manager Sarena Selbo. “Our new nature play area is a great showcase of the creativity urban refuges provide to meet the needs of the families we serve.” 

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