By Franny MeLampy

As one of the youth education interns at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum, my summer project focuses on nature play and the Sue Reichert Discovery Trail. The Sue Reichert Discovery Trail is an important place for the education department at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The trail was made possible by a gift from Rudy Reichert and family in memory of his wife, who was a docent at Matthaei and who loved nature education. Today’s docents give many tours to groups who visit the gardens, and often use the trail as a place to explore and invite curiosity about the natural world. With its many recognizable natural markers such as stately trees and Willow Pond, the Sue Reichert Trail is a great place to learn about nature, and the many possibilities of utilizing this trail for education have expanded over the years.

As the importance of nature play becomes better known in the environmental education community, implementing nature play as a feature of this trail is the next venture in increasing the trail’s educational opportunities.

The Sue Reichert Discovery trail has many areas, such as the tree stump story circle, bug meadow, the ginkgo grove, and view scopes over Willow Pond. Despite its position front and center when visitors arrive at the grounds, the trail is an underutilized area of Matthaei Botanical Gardens for visiting families. Expanding the trail’s impact for visitors is an ongoing mission for the education department and summer interns, and including nature play in that mission is an exciting new prospect.

Nature play is increasingly seen as an important part of growing up, and experiences in nature—getting dirty, building forts, investigating—are now often viewed as beneficial activities for children. These are the kinds of experiences that can help build environmental leaders by fostering connections with nature early in life, as the author Richard Louv wrote about in his book Last Child in the Woods.

Sue Reichert trail marker

You’ve arrived at the Sue Reichert Trail.

Sue Reichert trail map

The trailhead sign shows what the many stops around Willow Pond have to offer.

Docent leading kids on Sue Reichert

Plants large and small along the trail are exciting to explore, as these students with a cattail discover.

Pic 4-Kids with telescope

Opportunities to explore abound on the Discovery Trail. What waterfowl can you spy using the view scopes?

Pic 5-tree stump

What stories can a tree stump in the Story Circle tell? This area invites visitors to sit for a while.

A beetle on the Sue Recihert Trail

What discoveries will you make along the Sue Reichert Discovery Trail?

Nature play is already a part of our youth education program, and is a large focus of the Gaffield Children’s Garden. However, there are more areas around Matthaei that could use the ideas behind nature play to improve visitor interactions. The Sue Reichert Discovery Trail can be used as an immersive way to explore a more natural environment, and its diverse areas are ideal for kids who may not have the opportunity to experience nature back home. Because the trail has such a variety of features, it allows kids to experience a forest, meadow, pond, and other habitats in under a half mile of trail. This diversity of ecosystems makes the trail a truly unique part of the botanical gardens.

The main goal of nature play that my project focuses on is helping families and kids discover nature. The underlying outcome of nature play is the establishment of wonder, curiosity, and a love for nature that is difficult to teach using traditional methods. Letting children observe nature, learn about how it works, and interact with it can help foster this type of connection to the environment. The Sue Reichert Discovery Trail is a great place to do this, and my project will take advantage of the many large trees, areas to sit, places to run and hide, and wildlife to look at. Feeling connected to nature is the aim of nature play, and incorporating it into the Sue Reichert Discovery Trail could have many positive impacts on families who visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens during a young child’s life.

Franny MeLampyFranny MeLampy is a recent graduate from the University of Michigan and is interning with the Education Department at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. With her love of nature and teaching, she hopes to encourage visitors to explore more of the trails and gardens at Matthaei this summer. Franny was born and raised in Ann Arbor, and loves all the natural spaces the city has to offer. Her internship was made possible by a donor who supports research into the effectiveness of children’s gardens in engaging children in nature play, and the actual design and implementation of workshops and other activities to facilitate family creating of nature play spaces at home or in home neighborhoods.