Nature Play at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo

The Belle Isle Nature Zoo’s backyard is undergoing a transformation from au naturel to a natural playground area. While we believe it’s beneficial for our native flora and fauna to have natural places to grow wild and free, we also believe the same is true for local children!

What began as an ordinary space with a lot of potential is becoming an extraordinary space with a lot of possibilities for families to stay and play. While the playground environment remains filled with natural materials, the area now provides an inviting opportunity for children to exercise their imaginations, develop a sense of exploration, and enjoy some physical activity outside. Physical, mental and social health benefits flourish as a result of time spent outdoors, and we are working on designing a space that will sustain and support our guests as well as our environment.

Loose items made from natural materials inspire creative play – a balance beam from a fallen log offers a challenge of skill and concentration of gross motor skills, and a trail of tree stumps is just right for hopping, skipping, or even to be rested upon by visitors of all ages. People-sized nests are constructed and stocked with nature’s toys: sand, pebbles, stones, and “tree cookies”, which are slices of tree branches just perfect for construction play. A wooden teepee stands tall, waiting for hide-and-seekers, pretend campouts and all the creative games our small guests with big imaginations may bring.

Sensory activities are also in the works: Natural looms will build fine motor skills with a chance to use plant material to weave designs. Bamboo chimes and natural drums will inspire our natural musicians to play to the rhythm of the seasons, and colorful textural elements will reflect the beautiful palette of the natural world.

As the occasional chipmunk scampers through the playground and the birds call out their daily activities, they are at home in the natural environment (we’ve left plenty of natural “wild” spaces for our non-human animal friends around here!). Our goal with this playground is to create an opportunity for children to cultivate a sense of comfort and connection in outdoor experiences. Playing outside in nature – with nature – can help children gain respect for their environment and better understand their own place in it. And while the natural play supports the development and strength of our children, the sense of ownership they develop stands to strengthen the future stewardship of our natural world, which is vital to the health and sustainability of our planet.

We invite you to visit the Belle Isle Nature Zoo to check out our natural playground work-in-progress, hop on some logs, feel the textures and hear the sounds of nature. Tell us what you think!

– Amy Greene is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Belle Isle Nature Zoo.

Belle Isle Nature Zoo – Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries are a global phenomenon. These small, front‐yard book exchanges number nearly 40,000 in all 50 states and around the world in 70 countries — from Iceland to Tasmania to Pakistan, and now, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo! We’ve joined the movement to share books, support literacy, bring people together and create communities of readers.

What is a Little Free Library? Little Free Libraries are hand-crafted structures filled with constantly changing collections of books donated and shared by people of all ages and backgrounds. Each year, nearly 10 million books are shared in Little Free Libraries.

Just a few weeks ago, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo chartered and then planted a Little Free Library and seeded it with books. We’ve already observed the community and literacy-building movement blossom into a fun and shared experience for our visitors. More than 100 books have already gone home with our guests from Metro Detroit and other neighborhoods around Michigan, as well as some out-of-state visitors. Additional books for children and adults have been lovingly placed upon the shelf, shared by friendly donors, and the collection is ever-changing.

We’ve been added to the Detroit Little Libraries map as well, supporting the 313 Little Libraries action plan toward making Detroit the Little Free Library capital of the world. The 313 Little Libraries action plan has a priority of planting libraries in areas with low access to books, with a special focus on places where children congregate, supported by research that shows access to books is a powerful indicator of success in school.

Not only might our guests find a great book to take home and read (and then return or share with friends) the Little Free Library provides an opportunity to give back. It allows people who want to volunteer in some way a chance to donate books and know that they are contributing to the literacy and leisure of their community.

One of the best parts about Little Free Libraries is that they don’t require library cards or late fees, don’t insist that patrons whisper or stay quiet, and don’t mind if you do not return a book.

At the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, we are known for being stewards of nature, providing experiences that build awareness toward our local ecological health and sustainability. We are pleased to also be stewards of our neighborhood literacy and building community, offering opportunities to share good things to read with one another. It’s truly everyone’s library, and the more people who participate, the better!

– Amy Greene is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Belle Isle Nature Zoo.

Belle Isle Nature Zoo: Premier Pollinators in Action

The Belle Isle Nature Zoo is a facility operated by the Detroit Zoological Society that sits on a 5-acre site on Belle Isle surrounded by undisturbed forested wetlands. It provides year-round educational, recreational and environmental conservation opportunities for the community. The facility is free to the public, open daily in the summer, and there are a lot of wonderful opportunities to explore nature and wildlife at the Detroit Zoological Society’s campus on Belle Isle.

One of these fascinating features is the observation beehive, which provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the busy daily life of honeybees. Sealed tightly within a double-sided glass case, and with a tunnel providing the bees year-round access to the great outdoors, our hive invites guests to watch the bees do what they do best: work!

The work that the bees do is often more valuable than we realize. Bees are the most prolific pollinators in the natural world, due in part to their fuzzy bodies and faithfulness in buzzing to and from the same species of plant for an extended period. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male part of a plant or flower to the female part, which results in reproduction. In plants, one of the ways of producing offspring is by making seeds or fruit, and that surely benefits the rest of us! It has been stated that we can thank the bees for one out of every three bites of food we eat – and a lot of the good stuff, too, like fruits, vegetables, and even almonds. The pollination of bees also improves the production of the cotton plant, so not only do bees feed us, they clothe us, too!

We recently celebrated National Pollinator Week with our volunteer beekeeper, Steve Burt. He has been taking care of bees since 1974 and brings his passion for pollinators to Belle Isle. Steve maintains the health and wellness of our indoor observation beehive as well as our two outdoor beehives. With a little help from our productive honeybees, Steve bottled more than 40 pounds of delicious Belle Isle Nature Zoo honey last year!

The celebration of National Pollinator Week isn’t only for our gratitude for the fruits (and vegetables!) of the honeybees’ labor. It also helps us raise awareness to the some of the very serious challenges that honeybees are facing these days. Mites, viruses, diseases and especially certain pesticides are all contributing stressors to severe colony decline and death, often referred to as colony collapse disorder. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that beekeepers across the country lost more than 40 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2014 and April 2015.

What can we do to help? We can plant nectar and pollen-bearing plants such as milkweed, goldenrod and aster, herbs including mint, chives, and oregano or fruits and vegetables like strawberries, cucumbers, broccoli and squash. We can encourage local governments and other volunteer groups to plant more pollinator-friendly plants in local spaces such as the areas along roadsides or within public parks. And if you have a bee problem, instead of bringing out a can of bug spray, call a beekeeper organization for species identification and useful advice.

And while you’re here at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, you can watch our premier pollinators in action. Look for the worker bees dancing to communicate to the other bees where to find a new source of food outside. See if you can find the queen bee (identified by her larger size and a small white dot) laying eggs and being well-taken care of by her colony. You might even find some of the brood, also known as the egg, larva and pupa, or spot some stored honey in our beeswax honeycombs – a great sign that our helpful honeybees will be here for time to come!

There’s a lot of buzz about the upcoming Bee Fest event on National Honeybee Day at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo. This free event will feature demonstrations on how to build and maintain a bee-friendly garden, beekeeper talks, art, music, crafts and a bee costume parade! Buzz on over to Bee Fest on Saturday, August 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

– Amy Greene is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Belle Isle Nature Zoo. For more information about this facility, visit www.belleislenaturezoo.org.