By Rebecca Schmitz
A local family’s love of nature and commitment to the environment will soon prove to be a great benefit to people in Crozet. In April next year, Carolyn Schuyler and her family will open Wildrock, a 28-acre “playscape,” hiking and camping area next to Patricia Byrom Park on Blackwell Hollows Road.
The family purchased the property in February 2014 to use as farmland and as a way to spend time together in nature: “The outdoors is where we connect as a family. It is what brings us joy,” said Schuyler, a therapist specializing in trauma issues. After owning the property for three months, however, she realized the land could be a source of joy and inspiration to other families too, and felt compelled to share it with the public. After a flurry of Internet research and brainstorming sessions, she formulated a plan to create an outdoor park that would appeal to multiple generations and allow families to re-connect with nature and each other. “Instead of cultivating crops, we’ll be cultivating a heartfelt connection to the land.”
Her plan got a boost in April when she won the Tom Tom Festival’s Crowdfunded Pitch Night, beating out eight other start-up business ideas. During her three-minute pitch, Schuyler presented her plan for Wildrock to the audience gathered at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville. She opened by ringing a cowbell—the same bell her mother used to ring to summon her inside to dinner after a day of playing outside. She contrasted her own childhood spent roaming in nature to that of many kids today, lamenting the fact that some spend more time with computers and other electronic devices than playing outside. She presented Wildrock as an antidote for a generation starved for a connection to nature.
The crowd embraced her idea and voted her the winner, ensuring her a spot at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business’s Innovation Lab this summer, where she’ll receive legal support, mentoring, and workspace. Schuyler said she hopes her experience at Darden will help her “…really give Wildrock a firm foundation so it can be here for generations to come.” She’s already received help with logistics issues and insurance, and is hoping to create an advisory panel that includes children, parents, and experts on native plants and other environmental issues.
Schuyler said Wildrock will be different from traditional playgrounds and nature areas. Instead of jungle gyms and playground equipment, it will have only natural play elements, such as rocks, streams, and logs. Children can pretend to fish in the stream, set up their own “campsites,” build fairy houses on platforms, sit on a log throne, and explore huts and forts made of natural materials. “We want it to feel like it’s removed and very natural,” Schuler said. “It will have a very minimal impact on the land.”
These types of play areas, referred to as playscapes, are designed to strengthen children’s connections to nature and are gaining in popularity, especially in the western part of the country in places like Colorado. “All of us are a little alarmed at how much time kids are spending inside and in front of screens,” said Schuyler, the mother of a two-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy. “Natural playscapes have been shown to encourage more creativity, more problem-solving, and more collaborative play. Kids use more physical energy and tend to stay twice as long as they would at a traditional playground.” Adventure-based activities, such as scavenger hunts and live-action challenges modeled on video games, will be available for tweens and teens who may have aged out of the playscape. Schuyler has hired two landscape architects to design the playscape, one from Charlottesville and one from Oregon.
“Whatever you loved doing outdoors as a kid, I’m hoping you can find it here and share it with your children,” said Schuyler. “We want to create those magical moments that feel like a gift—like looking at a waterfall.”
Wildrock, a 20-minute drive from downtown Crozet, will have other features that make it unique. Because Schuyler believes it’s important that the park be accessible to all ages and abilities, its trail system will be wheelchair accessible and not as steep and challenging as one that might appeal to more experienced hikers. It will also be interactive. “The trails have points where people are invited to stop and experience things,” she said. Visitors can participate in geo-caching, and stop at mediation points along the way. The trails will also have access points to streams.
People will also be able to take meditative walks in a walking labyrinth modeled after the one found at the Chartres Cathedral in France. Schuyler said this ancient form of meditation and reflection while walking a circular path also appeals to many ages: “Kids like it and so do adults.”
Wildrock’s layout will encourage people to explore all areas of the park. Upon entering, visitors will drive past the natural playscape and continue on a path that leads to a converted barn and parking area for up to 30 cars. The barn will house restrooms and will be available to rent for birthday parties, church functions, assisted living field trips, work retreats, family reunions, and other gatherings. Reservations will be accepted online. A camping area is next to the barn, with six tents available for rent. “It’s a ‘soft’ way to introduce your kids to camping,” Schuyler said. Visitors can also rent a large teepee that sleeps 10 people.
Schuyler will receive no money from the county to develop Wildrock, relying instead on community support and collaboration with nonprofits. There will be a fee to enter the park. “We want it to be affordable—we have a commitment to making it accessible.” She said fees may be waived some days throughout the year.
The park will be staffed mostly by volunteers, with only a handful of paid employees. Schuyler is seeking community sponsors and “is open to community support and input.” She is hoping to get feedback from Crozet residents, and encourages them to visit her website at wildrock.org. In particular, she’s looking for volunteers with expertise in woodworking, trail building, gardening, carpentry, and sewing. Visitors to the website who want to keep in-the-know about the progress of building the playscape can sign up for email updates.
On Saturdays, Wildrock will be open to the public and available for rentals. Visits during the week will be reserved for school programs or groups such as church youth groups, scouting groups, and Boys and Girls Clubs. The park will be “family-focused,” with no alcohol or loud music allowed. Dogs must be leashed.
Schuyler, who, along with her husband, has had a life-long passion for the environment and nature, views Wildrock as a form of environmental activism. “I feel like it’s a more subtle way, a more joyful way to care.”
She plans to restore native species of plants at the entrance of the park, with a demonstration site that teaches visitors how to grow their own. She also believes strongly in the healing power of nature. In working with people who’ve experienced trauma, she’s found that “Nature is so important to recovery and a sense of inner peace.”
She cited her experience working at a camp for children who lived in the city and weren’t often exposed to nature. “By the end of the two weeks they were different kids. I’ve never forgotten how powerful that was.”
She envisions Wildrock bringing the same sense of peace, joy, and wonder to those who visit. And by creating a “multi-generational” park, she hopes to bring families closer as they enjoy nature together. “I really hope that Wildrock will be the backdrop for many special family memories.”