Folks of a certain age remember a time when the main job of children was to go outside and play.
A combination of increased fear, “plugged-in” play, school reform that doesn’t allow for direct outdoor experience and overscheduled family agendas mean that today’s children are playing outside less. Nature play stimulates all of the senses and promotes every aspect of healthy child development including physical, cognitive, creative, social, emotional and spiritual. It includes digging in the dirt, cloud watching, tree climbing, catching bugs, wading — unstructured free time in the backyard, in the woods, on a farm or even in a vacant lot.
Thanks to a partnership between the New River Land Trust, Back to Nature Landscaping and the Town of Blacksburg, Heritage Community Park and Natural Area in Blacksburg now includes a Nature Play Space to inspire a love of the outdoors in young children. Heritage Park is unusual as a town park because of its rural character. Visitors walk mowed paths through rolling hills dotted with hay bales, observe the beautiful pond and Tom’s Creek which meanders through the land, and walk among old farm buildings still standing on the 169-acre site between Glade Road and Meadowbrook Road, which both have parking access areas.
Development of the Nature Play Space began in August of 2016 with new features added this summer. Families can reach this enchanting corner of Heritage Park from the Glade Road entrance. Hike down past the pond, take a right at the first fork in the path and then a left once up into the field. A welcoming arbor entrance leads to an inviting gathering spot made of boulders and logs. Interpretive signs invite and encourage families to play. A sand pile offers endless creative play options and a Little Free Library extends an invitation to sit and read outdoors. With a little observation, visitors find that wildlife abounds, plants enchant and nature works its magic.
When the New River Land Trust reached out to Back to Nature Landscaping to see if they wanted to partner to build the Nature Play Space, owner James Ulmer was immediately on board. “At a very young age, I spent the majority of my time outdoors — hunting, fishing, climbing trees, exploring the woods — you name it, I was doing it. Maybe that is why I enjoy landscaping and construction so much. The Nature Play Space at Heritage Park is personally important and will always be one of my most favorite projects. My company decided to work on this space and donate construction of the arbor entryway.”
Historically, the New River Land Trust’s work has been educating and assisting landowners to protect their land through conservation easements. It also helps keep family farms in agriculture, while encouraging forests and open spaces stay wild and scenic, and historic places are preserved forever. Since 2002, the New River Land Trust has conserved 51,000 acres and more than 25 miles of New River frontage. In 2010, it added a Youth Outreach component. “Nature play is fun, promotes healthy childhood development and fosters environmental stewardship in young people,” states executive director John Eustis. “The Nature Play Space is an effective way to engage with and give back to our community. We support healthy kids and land conservation all while getting to play!”
The New River Land Trust hosts seasonal Outdoor Family Classes in the Nature Play Space. Classes are free, but registration is required. If they can find a sponsor, Outdoor Family Classes will continue at no cost to participants. The organization also coordinates field trips for local school and youth groups with a particular focus on underserved children. The New River Land Trust encourages families from the New River Valley to visit and play in all seasons.


Text by Justine Brantley
Photos by Silver Pebble Photography

Justine Brantley is the Youth Outreach Coordinator for New River Land Trust and loves getting outside with her own two children in the New River Valley.