ACTON >> Inside a massive treehouse, on the nest swing or zooming down the big slide, playing becomes learning at the Discovery Museums' newest exhibit, where nature takes center stage.
This outdoor exhibit called Discovery Woods is already grabbing the attention of children since its grand opening on July 16 and 17.
Filled with sensory and observation stations like peepholes and listening tubes, children can explore through elevated trails that are accessible for people of all abilities.
"The idea is getting kids back outdoors," CEO Neil Gordon said, as he walked on the ramp to the exhibit's treehouse, which is made from the wood of trees cut down on the site to make room for Discovery Woods. Thick golden-hued tree branches hold up the walkways, and themixes trunk from a towering white oak tree was carved into a couch.
But even more so, Gordon wanted to get all kids outdoors. The whole exhibit is connected through flat surfaces and paths to create easy navigation for wheelchairs and strollers. The slide is wider than usual so children with difficulties holding up their upper body can scoot down with a parent behind them, and a swing is wide and netted so kids can lay down.
There's also a wiggly bridge, tents made from logs, and a cargo net to climb up and bounce on.
"You can do a lot of stuff with nature," said 7-year-old Eliza Rancourt, barefoot and climbing on the cargo net.
"It's really bouncy," added her brother Chase, 5.
"I like the little holes because you can climb up."
The siblings from Bolton came to the museum Wednesday, July 20, with their cousins and grandmother, Amanda Rancourt. The group could comfortably fit on the net swing together.
"It's so fun. It's so comfortable," Eliza said.
Up in the treehouse, the Bradley family was using a mix of acorns, rocks, and fabric flowers to make collages.
"I feel like it appeals to a variety of age spans. It definitely adds a cool, new element to the facility," said Emily Bradley, watching Nora, 9, Maeve, 7, and Ryan, 5, make their artwork. The Acton family was absorbing fresh air and science.
Nearly all of the wooden materials for the treehouse are local — cut down on site and some from Littleton. A rain garden and 2,000 new plants were also added.
The treehouse was designed and built by The Treehouse Guys, a duo with a television show on the DIY Network. Gordon said an episode on the construction of the exhibit will air in the fall. Concord architects Lemon-Brooke designed Discovery Woods, according to a statement from the museums. General contracting was performed by JM Coull Inc., of Maynard.
The new exhibit cost $1.5 million, and is the first phase of the museums' revitalization. In 2017, Phase II will double the size of the museums' science building, bringing all the current exhibits under one roof, the statement said.
The overall cost will be $8.4 million, and Discovery Museums is close to that goal because of donations from the community. There is still $540,000 left to raise, Gordon said.
"What we had been dreaming about is the reaction from people," Gordon said.
Based on the smiling faces of kids running from the gravel pit to the treehouse, Gordon and his team must be thrilled at the outcome.
"From an education point of view, the staff is always coming up with new ideas," he said. They may hollow out a log so children can make music with it.
One of the best moments so far, Gordon said, was watching a boy examine the way tree branches hold up the massive treehouse, and telling his mother how he could replicate the structure at home with blocks.
Smaller sections of the space give the option for other activities to come during different seasons. The area that has blocks now could have hay bales in the fall. When snow comes down this winter, a whole new host of options will wait for children at Discovery Woods, though specific plans are still being developed.
The exhibit also has a walkway to neighboring conservation land, filled with trails that keep discovery blooming beyond the Museums' border.