Kelli Eggert is on a “mission” to hike with her 3-year-old son, Charlie.
When it comes time to head outdoors, one of their favorite places to go is the Indian Creek Nature Center, Iowa’s only private, nonprofit nature center. The southeast Cedar Rapids center features about four miles of trails that wind through 210 acres of wetlands, riparian forests, maple sugar bush, tall-grass prairies and oak savannas.
The mother-son duo especially enjoy spending time on the “Sense of Wonder Trail,” which is a trail and playscape created for children and adults to explore nature.
“I feel like he (Charlie) is at an age where free play outside is incredibly valuable,” says Eggert, 30, a single mother who lives in Cedar Rapids.
Last September, Eggert took her son to attend the opening of Amazing Space, the nature center’s new building and campus. A converted 1930s dairy barn had served as the center’s headquarters since the 1970s, but it proposed accessibility issues for people with disabilities, a lack of space for programming, and other challenges.
“Visitors love Amazing Space,” says Lindsey Flannery, the center's business development coordinator.
She calls the new building a “gateway for all the exciting things that are happening here.” In 2017 alone, the center added six new events, including farm-to-table dinners, a concert series and free weekly summer yoga classes. In January, the center’s Backcountry Film Festival sold out with 200 attendees, and in March, more than 3,000 people attended the center’s Maple Syrup Festival.
“I’m excited that we are offering more opportunities for recreation in nature so more people are connecting and recognizing the value of natural spaces to our community and to the world,” Flannery says.
Amazing Space was built on what was farmland until 1996. After the land was purchased, volunteers tore out miles of fence line, planted more than 3,000 trees, built trails and seeded 20 acres of prairie where crops once grew.
From the start of the building project, the nature center was committed to minimizing its impact on the environment. That’s why it’s seeking to achieve the Living Building Challenge, which goes beyond Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification to focus on true sustainability with no negative environmental impact during construction or operation.
The 12,000-square-foot facility is powered by hundreds of solar panels and a geothermal energy system. It also has other sustainable features, including:
• Gutters and downspouts that connect to a water collection basin
• Insulation made from sand and recycled glass
• Permeable pavers to capture rainwater and snow melt
• Windows that look like cobwebs from the outside to help prevent birds from hitting them
• Reclaimed wood from a Marion barn
• Locally sourced limestone
• Natural light
• Small doors that allow bees to enter enclosed educational hives
Eggert, for one, is pleased with the center’s focus on sustainability.
“I’m very conscious of our energy use and its impact on the environment,” Eggert says. “It’s great to see the nature center taking the steps to decrease their use.”
Flannery says the center wants to attract new people to it — “even those who don’t consider themselves ‘outdoorsy,’ to see what a gem we have here.”
“We want to inspire people to get into nature themselves,” she says.
Before she began working at the center in March 2014, Flannery frequented the nature center trails and explored the property with friends. “It was actually introducing myself to John Myers, the executive director, at a networking event to tell him how much I loved this place that led to my position here,” she says.
“It’s really important to me to devote my time and energy to a cause I genuinely care about,” she says. “I am incredibly passionate about the importance of everyone spending time outdoors. Plus I love being surrounded by nature every day. The view out my window is phenomenal.”
The center’s vision, she says, “is to create champions of nature, meaning people who care deeply about nature because those are the people who work to protect it. This helps us achieve our mission to create a more sustainable future. This is exciting to me because this is what can affect real change in the future and ensure that future generations have places like the nature center to explore and
For some children, a field trip to the nature center is their only real experience in nature, Flannery says. “These experiences help move people, especially kids, from misunderstanding or even fear of nature to interest, curiosity, excitement and passion for the outdoors. And people who are passionate about the outdoors will be our next generation of nature stewards.”
In a day and age where many of us are more engaged with electronics than nature, Flannery says spending time outdoors is not only healthy, but also “necessary.”
“More and more research demonstrates the link between time spent outdoors and general health,” she says.
One study in the American Journal of Public Health, for example, showed that children who spent time in green outdoor settings reported fewer symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Eggert sees the benefits of spending time outdoors with Charlie, whom she calls an “independent soul” who likes to lead the way. While they hike, they talk about the sounds they hear and the animals they see. Charlie likes to name the trees they encounter, too.
They also collect sticks, rocks and acorns.
“Each time we go for a hike, he is learning about something different — from discovering his own limitations to discovering how a puddle moves when a rock is thrown into it,” she says. “His ability to learn through play and self discovery will be beneficial when he is older.”
While Eggert admits she misses the center’s old barn building — “there was something homey about it,” she says — she calls the new building beautiful, modern and inviting.
“I think my favorite part is how open it is,” she says. “You can see outside from almost anywhere because of the open layout and many windows. They’ve even included a great patio that looks out over the pond to the children’s learning trail.”
The old building was small and needed to be upgraded, Eggert says. She sees the new facility as a great way to bring more people out to explore the center and the trails.
“Families should take advantage of the center because it’s a great place to get you outside, exercising and exploring as a family,” she says. “There is something for everyone and programs to help you get started and help you learn more about the world around you.”