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National Lakeshore launches Nature Play Zone for kids

Javaughn Fernanders park guide with National Park Service helps 2-year-old Jayden Wils2 with his grandmother Cheryl Wilsboth Gary trace his

Javaughn Fernanders, a park guide with the National Park Service, helps 2-year-old Jayden Wilson, 2, with his grandmother Cheryl Wilson, both of Gary, trace his hand in the Nature Play Zone during the Green Gary day activities at the Paul Douglas Environmental Education Center in the Miller section of Gary, Ind. Saturday April 27, 2013. Activities were held at the Douglas Center, as well as, at Marquette Park. | Stephanie Dowell~Post-Tribune

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If you go

The Paul H. Douglas Center, 100 N. Lake St., Gary, will host Family Days at its new Nature Play Zone from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays starting Memorial Day weekend. For more information, log on to www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm. Those interested in volunteering at the Douglas Center or other Indiana Dunes programs should log on to www.volunteer.gov and click on “Indiana” on the map.

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Updated: May 30, 2013 2:48PM



GARY — After Saturday, the emerald ash borer and its tendency to scar trees was no longer a mystery for Owen Heeren.

The 6-year-old Valparaiso boy, who was with parents Casandra and Adam, got into the thick of things with other kids during the inaugural opening of Nature Play Zone, a new attraction at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s Paul H. Douglas Center on Saturday afternoon. One of the helpful rangers explained what the shiny green beetle, a scourge to region trees, does.

“I was like, ‘What are those?’ and I explored and found out the bugs live in the wood,” Owen said, brandishing a magnifying glass and pointing at the squiggly tracks in a chunk of smooth yet scratched log. “And I learned about cactuses. They can hurt, so I made sure there was no danger.”

The play zone — one of three attractions lakeshore officials debuted during the Nature in My Neighborhood launch and Green Gary event — allows kids to dig, climb and explore things they can’t in other parts of the park, said Kim Swift, education specialist with the National Lakeshore. Since the particular land tract on which the zone lies has no native plants or other species the park works to protect, kids can go nuts and touch everything.

The lakeshore staff researched the idea of creating a play zone for the kids for about a year, Swift said. They researched other programs and brought a prototype to the community last summer.

More than 200 people — a set comprised of groups and families — tested their idea, and with the great feedback, they launched the play zone.

“We hope it takes off in other national parks, too,” Swift said. “It’s a nice, safe area for kids to play in.”

The play zone’s opening coincided with the debut of the completed Miller Woods Trail, which allows nature lovers to hike all the way through between the Douglas Center and Marquette Park. It also included the introduction of distance learning equipment, which will allow live transmissions from the park to classrooms all over the country, Lakeshore Superintendent Constantine Dillon said.

“Say we do a controlled burn on the property, for example. They can’t come out here because it’s not safe, but we can show them what we’re doing and why we do it.” Dillon said. “When we do a transmission, we’ll send out a code on Go to Meeting, and whoever wants to opt in can.

“This will be particularly good not only for young students, but high school students who can’t get out to the lakeshore.”

The $20,000 backpack system was funded in part by the Dunes National Park Association, Walmart and NIPSCO.



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