Afield: Prairie Ridge Ecostation

A day at Prairie Ridge Ecostation

by Addie Ladner

Finally, we’re out of the house.
I’ve packed up my 3-year-old-daughter for a day out – outside and out of our routine. Our destination is Prairie Ridge Ecostation. The Ecostation opens at 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday and noon on Sundays. It offers undistracted, interactive, nature-inspired play. We can hike the trails and identify plants and wildlife throughout 45 pastoral acres. While Prairie Ridge has been part of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences since 2004, the Nature PlaySpace, which is really why we’re here, opened less than 6 years ago, in September 2013. Wanting a relaxing, fuss-free day outside, Prairie Ridge immediately came to my mind. After a minor outfit debacle of the usual toddler type (rather than a dress and ballet shoes, we agree on a frilly lace top over overalls with Converse sneakers), I’m frazzled before we finish loading into the car. But the drive through open rural land on Edwards Mill Road is calming. We’re less than five miles outside of Raleigh proper, but it’s a stark contrast to the major construction, parking decks, and apartment high-rises that surround our home.

Growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as the daughter of a horticulturist meant much of my childhood was spent outdoors. Learning about nature just happened organically. But for my daughters, who are being raised about five minutes from downtown Raleigh, I find myself constantly having to carve out time for them outside. I crave it for myself, too. Luckily it’s not too hard to find, especially with a place like Prairie Ridge being less than 10 minutes away.

On our recent Saturday afternoon visit, we pull onto Gold Star Drive and park. We follow the trail to the PlaySpace, ducking vines and balancing on logs on our way down. There, we find our friend Sara and her sons, Rowan and Fletcher. “Grace and I need a good day,” I tell her.

Within minutes, the kids become lost in play with very little need of us. They run up and down the large compacted dirt mound, a mountain in their mind. They’re in and out of the underground tunnel, then “swimming” in the dirt pit, which apparently is a pool today. The PlaySpace is a nature-inspired playground tucked in the woods. It provides just enough structure to spark play that’s free and creative: A mock-campsite with a tent and table topped with old metal kitchenware is perfect for making mud soufflés; the small wooden amphitheater brings out young thespians; tree stumps lining the fence turn toddlers into leapfrogs.

After about an hour, it’s time for lunch. Our table under the trees is taken over by a homemade picnic. We could be anywhere, I think. Prairie Ridge is distinct for its truly remote feel, and you can easily manage to conjure family backpacking trips in the mountains.

After a few hours, we have disconnected enough that it seems a sacrilege to check my phone. I do only when Grace asks, “Can the capes come out?” In adult speak: she wants to know if it’s time for Nature Play Days. We’ve skipped afternoon nap for the park’s Nature Play Days before and will again today. Grace now knows that on Saturday afternoons, the PlaySpace really comes to life via a few clever props brought out to elevate what’s already there. The props and themes are slightly different each week. It might be a hammock made from scrap fabric tied between two trees and some shark teeth buried in the gravel boxes; it might be a bucket of water with paint and brushes set up near the tree stumps and pool noodles turned into an obstacle course. Today it is animal puppets set up by the amphitheater, the tiniest little toy fairies, and, to Grace’s glee, capes and masks. Typically I bring a book to read. Yet on this particular Saturday, with the small crowd, the playful props, and nature’s calming effect, I’m craving some Grace time. It’s a rare occurrence to have just two of us together with no plans and no one around. After our friends leave, we find ourselves pretending to fly around the PlaySpace, and I feel like I’m an extra in the 1950s play adaption of Peter Pan. Kids running through the woods totally immersed, appearing wild and free. We all need to unleash our inner playfulness once in a while, and it’s easy to do at Nature Play Days.

I check the time and can’t believe it’s nearly 4 p.m. Packing up at the PlaySpace surprisingly becomes the most exciting part of the day, thanks to the creative thinking of Jan Weems, head of early childhood education at both the museum and the ecostation, who has Grace enthralled in make-believe magic. She asks if Grace can help put the toy fairies to sleep in their homes. Grace finds actual little doors that are nailed to one of the tree trunks, where we tuck the fairies in using the biggest, golden-est leaves we can find as blankets. We bid a final adieu to the eldest fairy, a statue perched in a tree top.

Grace and I make our way out of the park by walking past the garden and then racing through the all-encompassing prairie trail, flanked by head-high meadow grasses, which leads us to the parking lot.
On my way home with a sleeping toddler in the back, I consider how so many child-centered places nowadays are filled with toys, sprawling gymnasiums, and all sorts of visual and tactile stimulation. I, however, love the simplicity and peacefulness of Prairie Ridge. I’ve noticed the kids there do too, although I think I’d love it even without my daughter in tow. It’s a testament that less can really mean more and nature has plenty to give.