For most of 2020, the world has been on lockdown. Sheltering in place, staying home and getting accustomed to life spent indoors is a new way of life. A walk through the neighborhood or even into the backyard, for a while, was a bit of a treat. That did not last long.
But in the unprecedented era of COVID-19, Auburn University’s Kreher Preserve and Nature Center, or KPNC, has become a hub of outdoor activity, a much-needed respite for folks seeking ways to experience and embrace life in nature. What better place to find it than 120 acres of forest with six miles of trails
Throughout the pandemic, KPNC has retained its regular hours—from dawn to dusk. And people have increasingly flocked there nearly every minute of the day.
“It has been incredible,” said Michael Buckman, manager of the KPNC, an outreach program of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “Since the height of the stay-at-home period in March and April, the KPNC parking lot has been consistently full—day in, day out. That kind of attendance is unusual for weekdays, but the community is taking full advantage of the safe environment the nature center offers for recreation and socialization.”
Buckman said the center doesn’t keep a count of daily visitors, but the staff has estimated that nearly every day since mid-March, between 75 and 150 people have visited.
“That’s over 10,000 visitors in only four months, a 30 percent increase over our normal spring/summer attendance,” he said.
The surge includes not just KPNC regulars, but also first-time visitors who have quickly turned into repeat visitors. On most mornings, some people who are accustomed to working out in gyms have made the center their go-to running and exercise spot. They find it safer and, to their surprise, they like it better.
And the thriving success has not gone unnoticed by public officials, including John Wild, president of the Auburn-Opelika Tourism Bureau.
“From my perspective, the KPNC has been a life-saver for lots of families during this time,” Wild said. “It’s a great place to spend time. I hope that turns into lots of memberships after people realize all the benefits even during sheltering at home.”
Kids, parents, catch breath of fresh air
There has been no shortage of frenzied parents looking for new activities for the kiddos. They started bringing their children to play for the first time around March, Buckman said, “and they are now coming every week because their kids love it so much. We have been thanked many times for staying open and for keeping the resources available to the community through the pandemic.”
Among the grateful crowd is Auburn faculty member Neha Potnis, whose daughter, Avanita, took part in the KPNC summer camp—which went on as planned in a newly coordinated method, with 32 children divided into four groups of eight. Daily temperature and symptom checks were performed each morning at drop-off, masks were required on the rare occasion that 10 or more campers gathered together, and counselors always remained masked.
“It’s such an awesome camp for the kids during these challenging times,” Potnis wrote to Buckman, sending along a separate thank-you note from her daughter that included a drawing depicting the creatures she met there, including a bird, a bee buzzing near a flower, a snail, a butterfly and even a bat.
“Thank you teachers for the exciting ecology camp,” Avanita wrote on the picture. “I had a lot of fun.”
Her mom continued, “You have also set an excellent model for following proper protocols during the pandemic and yet letting kids learn and enjoy the camp.”
For the children, it was a time to run, play and socialize with friends they had not seen in months, Buckman said.
At the outset of the crisis, KPNC had to cancel its scheduled events for the following two months with a plan to reschedule them for July, unless COVID-19 precautions prevented. The brand-new Woodland Wonders Nature Preschool was also canceled—at least the in-person portion. KPNC Educational Director Sarah Crim created remote-instruction for the preschoolers through a devoted Facebook page that allowed the students to interact weekly with classmates and teachers through virtual instruction and kid-submitted videos showing off the activities they completed.
The lessons included a weekly opportunity for the students to visit the center with their families to take on challenges, as well as Zoom meetings that brought all the children and teachers together to talk about what they were learning.
Staying safe, forging ahead
To continue operating, KPNC has significantly lowered the maximum capacity of public programs to enforce its social distancing program. Sanitation stations were created throughout key areas of the property, and as with kid campers, visitors who attend scheduled programs, events and workshops are pre-checked with no-touch thermometers and asked specific questions, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to assess COVID-19 risk.
Still, in such a spacious area, people rarely encounter others who are not part of their group.
“In every case we’ve witnessed, social distancing was maintained,” Buckman said. “Large groups are more unusual now, I think because of general awareness in the community about the heightened risks of gatherings. When it does happen, we do see masks go on without having to say anything. Our official policy is that masks are required when you are within six feet of a person from a different household.”
He said the staff enforces these precautions for any programming the center offers, but there is enough space that participants can social distance enough to limit the need for masks.
The adventures continue not just for children, but for adult programs as well, including nature workshops and classes. And the enthusiasm is showing in that realm, too. A recent program, called Science on Saturdays: Medicinal Plants, sold out.
It’s unusual for adult programs like this to reach full capacity, but the KPNC staff believes adults share children’s eagerness to go outdoors, socialize and engage in new activities.
The recent program, “A Musical Walk in the Woods,” coordinated with the Auburn Area Community Theater, had performers belting out Broadway tunes among the trees—with singers keeping a distance of at least 15 feet from visitors, who were separated into groups of 10 or fewer. At KPNC, even live theater isn’t off limits in the time of COVID.
“The entire event took place along the trails, so everyone was spaced out and taking advantage of all the benefits of being outside,” Buckman said.
Expansions to come
Looking forward, two significant additions to KPNC are in the works: the Pond Pavilion and an innovative classroom building that will incorporate the property’s elements of nature into the construction.
Because Auburn University Building Science students are constructing the Pond Pavilion, work on it has been delayed since March, when the university began its remote-instruction period. Buckman said construction of the pavilion, made possible by the F. Allen and Louise K. Turner Foundation and the McWhorter School of Building Science, will resume in the fall semester, with the first phase—including piles, columns and the entire roof—expected to be complete by late October. The second phase, set for completion in the spring semester of 2021, will finish off the building, including a solar panel kit, granted by the Rotary Club, that will provide all electrical needs.
“The completion of this pavilion will open up the north side of KPNC to incredible opportunities,” Buckman said.
Those include a rental venue overlooking the turtle pond and expansion of educational programs, workshops and major events, not to mention a much-needed restroom area.
The classroom building, to be located on the property’s south side, is the work of architect Tom Chung of Leers Weinzapfel Associates. It will be nestled into the forest landscape and will serve as a showcase for sustainable cross-laminated timber, or CLT, construction. At about 3,000 square feet, it will contain two large classrooms and a central space, the learning trail, that will be full of interactive and live-animal displays.
The building will serve as the base of operations for the Woodland Wonders Preschool, with a general-use classroom providing more opportunities for programs, workshops and classes, Buckman said. It will also serve as a safe, air-conditioned space during inclement weather for camps and field trips that would otherwise need to be cancelled.
“And with tranquil, beautiful, 360-degree views of the forest, the building and its large event deck will be one of the area’s best venues for special events, weddings, receptions, reunions and more,” Buckman said.
Funding for the new facility is around 70 percent secured, Buckman said, but its completion will require the generosity of supporters and partners. With an eventual return to normal life, KPNC is likely to see its surge of enthusiasts continue to visit regularly and, with that excitement, a newfound support of this essential oasis.
Coming up at Kreher Preserve and Nature Center
The Kreher Preserve and Nature Center has some exciting happenings scheduled for the fall—yes, even amid the continuing pandemic, there is always opportunity for fun and learning in the great outdoors (with appropriate precautions, of course).
Programs will be held at the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center located at 2222 N. College Street near the Auburn University Fisheries and Highway 280. The center is open to the public from dawn to dusk—no dogs, no bikes and no smoking allowed.
Ongoing children’s activities:
- Nature Babies
9-10 a.m. Wednesdays, for babies ages 0-2 years and a caregiver
Loosely structured classes let teachers guide caregivers in ways to learn and connect with their babies and nature. Nature Babies is free to KPNC members and $5 per class for nonmembers. Caregivers are welcome to wear their babies, carry them or push them in a stroller.
- Tree Tots
9:30-11 a.m. Sept. 17-Oct. 22, for children aged 6 months to 3 years and a caregiver
In this nature-based play class, children are encouraged to use their senses to explore their natural environment and learn together through play. This fall’s theme is “Falling for Nature,” as children learn about water, trees, soil and other aspects of nature. Classes start with a welcoming “circle time,” followed by story time and setting out to play and learn. Tree Tots is $45 per student for all six classes. KPNC membership is required for participation. There will be a $5 discount per student available for siblings living in the same household.
- Forest Friends
9:30-11 a.m. Sept. 18-Oct. 23, for children ages 2-5 years and a caregiver
This award-winning program, now in its tenth year, offers hands-on, nature-based education at the preschool level for children and their caregivers. Activities will include lessons, crafts, hike time and story time, among others. Forest Friends is $45 per student for all six classes, and KPNC membership is required for participation. There will be a $5 discount per student available for siblings living in the same household.
- School’s Out(side)
Fridays beginning Sept. 11-Nov. 20, with times to be determined. Class offerings are available for students in grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8.
This brand new, safe outdoor class will supplement the public school system’s virtual classes, in which children can connect to both their peers and nature. Classes will meet for 2.5 hours. This is a drop-off program. Time will be determined once students receive their virtual school schedule. The curriculum will relate to students’ virtual content, if possible, and will emphasize exploration and play. School’s Out(side) will be offered on a per-semester basis. Enrollment is $125 per student for the semester. There will be a discount of $12 per student available for siblings living in the same household.
- Nature Explorers
10-11:30 a.m. every second Monday from September to November, for homeschooling families of all ages.
This environmental education program, designed for home-schooling families, offers a nature-based educational experience, with classes incorporating hands-on science with nature and environmental awareness, each concluding with a nature hike. Nature Explorers is $15 per student for all three classes. KPNC membership is required. There will be a discount of $2 per student available for siblings living in the same household.
- Fall Camps
Auburn City Schools: Oct. 16, Nov. 11
Opelika City Schools: Oct. 12, Nov. 11
The KPNC offers fall camps to students in grades 1 through 6 on days when schools are closed. Campers will join the KPNC naturalists outside to explore the natural world and wildlife communities and discover new adventures. Snacks will be provided; children should bring their lunch and a refillable water bottle each day. Fall Camps are $50 per student per day. A discount of $5 per student is available for siblings living in the same household.
More upcoming programs:
- AUsome Amphibians
10-11 a.m. Oct. 3
The KPNC educators will give a presentation on the AUsome amphibians found in our state and beyond. Both kids and adults will enjoy this entertaining, hands-on program with live animals.
Admission is $5 per person and free for children aged 3 and younger. No pre-registration is required. Proceeds benefit the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center.
- Halloween Enchanted Forest
5:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 23-24
Enjoy a family-friendly Halloween event, hiking the KPNC trails and visiting costumed characters along the way. Children are invited to wear their Halloween costumes. There will be pumpkin bowling, a campfire, fortune telling and face painting. S’mores kits and drinks will be available for purchase. Tickets are $7 per person when purchased online; $10 per person at the door, and free for children age 2 and younger. Proceeds benefit the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center. This event will be postponed or cancelled in the event of inclement weather; watch KPNC’s Facebook page for updates.
- HoHoHo Hike is scheduled for Dec. 5 from 10-11:30 a.m.
(Written by Teri Greene)