Keeping it Wild: Wildrock Nature Playscape Opens North of Crozet

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A few of Wildrock’s play areas. Photo courtesy Wildrock.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
– Henry David Thoreau

In the summers of my childhood in the 50s and 60s, I would leave home in the morning and return for dinner, running wild all day over nearby woods, streams, and playgrounds without supervision. Today this freedom would be nearly unthinkable in most American communities! In his 2008 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv asserts that an increasing number of today’s children suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder” because they now spend so much of their free time indoors, “plugged in” to video games and other technology. “This book explores the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications of that change,” Louv explains in his introduction. Contact with nature, he argues, is essential for healthy child—and adult—development.

Carolyn Schuyler agrees with this assessment. To combat this trend, she has created a unique “nature playscape” north of Crozet, where children can experience the “joy of free play in nature” and explore to their hearts’ content in a safe, free roaming, 28-acre park chock full of enchanting activities and enticing “play zones.”

The blessedly quiet and peaceful playscape is nestled beneath Fox Mountain, far away from the hustle, bustle, and stress of urban life. “Play zones” include a mud kitchen, fox den, hobbit house, a giant nest and eggs that could belong to the giant, a climbable wooden salamander, a fort-building station, a discovery garden, a play stage with costumes, a stone walking labyrinth, and a play fishing pier complete with pond, sand beach, fishing poles, and magnetic fish. For real water play, there is a wading stream where children can splash in provided rubber boots and catch frogs, minnows, and crayfish with provided nets and buckets. A tree house is under construction, and the discovery trail leads to a picnic pavilion and to the original “wild rock” itself, which towers over the playscape and offers wide views. According to Schuyler, “each child who visits has a favorite spot.” Sarah Harris, the early childhood field trip coordinator, pointed out that “the opportunity to play unsupervised in nature builds confidence.”

Children can roll oversized eggs down the ramp out of “the nest.” Photo: Meredith Coe, courtesy Wildrock.

Wildrock, which opened May 1, is located at 6700 Blackwells Hollow Rd (Rt. 810) about 14 miles north of Crozet beside Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve Park. Hosting field trips on weekday mornings, it is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Reservations may be made at wildrock.org, required due to limited parking and staffing arrangements. With a basic “pay what you can” policy, the suggested donation is $5 per individual or $25 per family. Schools pay $8 per student, and “Easy Camping” will launch soon, to include a tent, showers, and an evening campfire program with s’mores. Wildrock can also be rented for family reunions and corporate events, and custom workshops are offered for families, community groups, educators and therapists, and business groups. The pay structure is designed to keep Wildrock sustainable and support its many outreach programs.

Schuyler’s first career was as a therapist working primarily with children, where she learned the healing benefits of play therapy. “I saw firsthand how nature play builds emotional resilience.”

She returned to this area three years ago with her husband and two-year-old daughter, after eleven years working in Maryland. As she surveyed the family-owned land where her daughter could roam freely—replete with stream, willow tree, boulders for climbing, and the towering “wild rock” itself—she suddenly had a dream of what this space could become for children and families of the community, how it could serve “to celebrate nature play, to provide a platform for connection and a bridge into nature for those who don’t have much access to green space.” Out of this vision—combined with Schuyler’s creative drive, dedication, enterprise, and tireless work—Wildrock has become a reality and a unique resource for the children of the region.

Map of Wildrock.

Schuyler became passionate about creating an environment that would build stronger children and families, inspire the love of nature, and act as a catalyst for others to support healthy growth and healing. Wildrock’s mission is “to promote nature play for health and happiness”—especially focusing on individuals and families who might be dealing with challenges such as autism, cancer, abuse, or sensory integration disorder. Schuyler has formed partnerships with a number of nonprofit organizations that serve these populations, such as the Virginia Institute of Autism, Galen Foundation, Boys and Girls Club, Computers4Kids, International Neighbors, The Women’s Initiative, and Bright Stars, who visit frequently at little or no charge. She encourages foster families and refugee families to spend time there relaxing in nature, and has plans for a Veteran Get-Away Program which welcomes veteran families with kids ages 18 and under to come for a Saturday afternoon of fun on the playscape and trails, followed by a food truck dinner, evening campfire games and activities, s’mores, star gazing, and tent camping. “I wanted to create a safe space for healing, for building positive memories,” she explains. “Our camping programs encourage family bonding and a love of nature. It is the world’s best back yard.” The entire playscape is wheelchair accessible.

Of course, Schuyler did not make her dream come true alone—it has truly taken a village. Building Wildrock was a community effort, with hundreds of volunteers from U.Va.’s Freedom By Design, U.Va. APO Fraternity, the JAG School, and the Boy Scouts donating their time, labor, and expertise. The Building Goodness Foundation, a major partner, built most of the structures.

Schuyler’s unique vision and inspired mission has earned grants from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation (CACF), the Perry Foundation, and the Hartfield Foundation—some of them matching grants that also relied on individual donations, which are still welcomed! Etsy artists and Folkmanis have donated costumes and animal puppets. As I spoke with her, my favorite quotation from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden seemed to describe this project: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his [or her] dreams, and endeavours to live the life which [s/]he has imagined, [s/]he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Wildrock has a magical feel to it, like a recreated fairyland or a trip back in time. It reminds me of my favorite family outing as a child, the Enchanted Forest in Maryland, which featured storybook settings and fairy tale recreations—a place outside of time, where children could just be children and let their imaginations run wild.

Memberships are available, and donations, interns, and volunteers are always needed. If anything can save our troubled world, Wildrock is an inspiring example of what can! www.wildrock.org

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