Natural play area lets children’s imaginations run wild

With sloped pastures, a crystal-clear stream and mountains looming in the distance, the Wildrock nature playscape brings to mind the verdant fantasy world of Middle Earth. Its tiny “Hobbit house” only completes the picture.

Wildrock founder Carolyn Schuyler hopes the three-acre play area, located next to Albemarle County’s Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Park, will encourage children to use their imaginations and inspire a lifelong enjoyment of nature.

“We want to help people remember and rediscover how good it feels to be in nature,” she said.

Wildrock, which operates as a nonprofit, is now open for reservations after more than two years of work by Schuyler’s family and scores of volunteers.

“It really is a testament to the generosity of this community,” she said.

Schuyler said she is worried by a “sea change” in how children spend their free time in the 21st century, with more hours devoted to screen media instead of playing outdoors.

Poor children in urban environments are particularly deprived of experiences in nature, she said.

“Outdoor play is not a luxury,” Schuyler said. “It is vitally important for the development of all children.”

After winning the Tom Tom Founders Festival’s crowdfunded pitch competition in 2015, Schuyler received $5,000, legal support and mentoring at the University of Virginia’s to help get her idea off the ground.

Schuyler said the Community Investment Collaborative and the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville also provided Wildrock with valuable guidance.

Volunteers from the Building Goodness Foundation helped to build many of the play features at Wildrock, including a log obstacle course, a playhouse, a pretend fishing pier, an art house with mounted chalkboards and a salamander-shaped climbing structure carved from oak.

“I thought [Wildrock] sounded like a marvelous idea from the beginning,” said Kelly Eplee, executive director of the Building Goodness Foundation.

“What appealed to us was Carolyn’s wish to reach out to city kids, and give them experiences in the country.”

Charlottesville City Schools classes, as well as afterschool programs such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia and Computers4Kids, have started to visit Wildrock, Schuyler said.

“We want to reach kids who don’t always get to be in beautiful green spaces,” she said.

“Carolyn has been a force of nature,” Eplee said. “She has done a great job pulling together many parts of the city and the community to help with the project.”

Building Goodness Foundation volunteers worked on the structures through cold winter weekends this year to get Wildrock ready to open this spring.

“Wildrock turned out to be quite a handful for us,” said Building Goodness volunteer Bob Gray. “We had some trouble getting the work done that we had agreed to do.”

Gray said he enjoyed working on Wildrock’s whimsical features. “It’s a wonderful, inventive place, very colorful and interesting,” he said.

“I think Wildrock is a bit of an experiment. But [Schuyler] is very motivated, and has educated herself on children’s play — I’m sure she’ll do a good job,” he said.

Schuyler said she was also grateful for assistance from many other organizations, including Alpha Phi Omega fraternity at UVa and Charlottesville’s Department of Parks & Recreation.

Schuyler said a team of 60 Judge Advocate General’s School students helped to make Wildrock wheelchair accessible with a winding gravel path.

“It looked like an army was coming up the driveway,” Schuyler recalled. “They would not leave until the trail was done … It brought tears to my eyes.”

Wildrock is in one of Albemarle’s most rural areas, about 40 minutes from Charlottesville by car and 20 minutes from downtown Crozet.

Before transferring the property to the nonprofit, Schuyler owned the 28-acre site that contains the playscape. She said that seeing how much her children loved to play and learn in the idyllic pasture convinced her that other young people in the community should be given the same experience.

A psychotherapist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder, Schuyler previously served as program director for The Women’s Initiative. She said that healing experiences in nature can play a critical role in trauma recovery.

“Founding Wildrock looks like a departure for my career, but I don’t think of it as one,” she said.

Schuyler is hosting a conference for other therapists next month to generate ideas for integrating the Wildrock playscape into patient care. Wildrock also is planning outreach events this year for refugees and veterans.

Families can reserve play time at Wildrock on Saturdays with a “pay-what-you-can” donation. Organizations and large groups may reserve the play area on other days of the week.

More information can be found at .