NORTH PARK — It was a scene that could have landed in a “Parks And Recreation” episode: a flustered park district official attempting to keep the peace while a neighbor yells furiously about … preschool kids playing in the woods.
The Chicago Park District called a community meeting to hear from neighbors living near the Walking Stick Woods, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd., to discuss how the 12-acre parcel of land within the nature preserve should be used.
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Tuesday night’s meeting was in response to concerns from residents about children from the Forest Playschool playing in the woods as part of the outdoor preschool’s nature-focused curriculum. Those residents say the area has “become unattractive” and that there is “unstructured play” going on there.
There have also been complaints that community input was not gathered before allowing a for-profit group to use the woods. In a letter, neighbors also said the woods should not be accommodating “scout camp amenities” like campfires or other “inorganic” items like man made climbing structures, clearings for gatherings or picnic areas.
“The 2-year accumulation of junk used by the program — broken furniture, sharp metal pipes, plastic cording, etc. as well as the use of a propane stove and open fires amid a forest full of dead wood, no doubt, fits the definition of ‘threat’,” the letter said.
Kristin Brock, an outdoor environmental education manager with the park district, asked the some 200 people gathered Tuesday to be polite with one another, respect each other’s opinions and to submit their questions and concerns using note cards provided by park staff. But before she could finish explaining the meeting format, she was interrupted by Janita Tucker, who says she lives on North Central Park Avenue across from the Walking Stick Woods.
“We are once again stating for the record our original request that a 12-acre nature study area be returned to its natural undisturbed condition and habitat for wildlife,” Tucker said, speaking over Brock.
As Tucker read a prepared statement she was flanked by other neighbors also unhappy with the Forest Playschool’s presence in the nature center. The group tried to prevent park district staff from getting near Tucker.
As Tucker spoke, others in the audience booed and called for her to sit down. Eventually, the audience started clapping in unison, apparently in an effort to get Tucker to end her speech.
“This is not a community meeting,” Tucker said, as she walked back to her seat after leaving the statement she was reading from with the park district staff.
After Tucker sat down, she and other people who want the for-profit Forest Playschool to leave the nature center continued to interrupt the meeting, with one man in the audience yelling, “This is not a community meeting, this is a fiat!”
‘We’re showing our children how to love the forest’
The drama started in December, when a group of neighbors complained to Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) in a letter about Forest Playschool using the woods.
A second letter circulated ahead of the meeting on Tuesday said the Forest Playschool was not “appropriate” for the nature center because its tuition was $8,465 a year, the school uses open fires and is “unlicensed by DCFS and the city,” among other things. The second letter said its authors were “people living adjacent” to the nature center.
“I’ve dealt with DCFS in Springfield and we have a working agreement to continue doing what we’re doing,” said Matthew Mitchell, an attorney representing Forest Playschool who is also a parent at the school. “To their credit, people in this community did a lot to preserve these woods from development.”
Mitchell was referencing the hard-fought deal North Park residents struck with the city in 1989, years after a tuberculosis sanatorium on the site shut down. Preservationists and locals wanted a nature preserve and not a shopping center and as the Chicago Reader reported at the time — they won.
The deal prohibited the city from developing the land for 75 years and designates the Walking Stick Woods as a “nature study area,” which allows for “[preserving] the existing ecological balance while maintaining the education purposes of the study area.”
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Brock acknowledged and applauded the community activism at the meeting, but said allowing children to play in the woods is not a violation of that agreement.
“When threatened with the demolition [of the woods] and the construction of a large shopping center, it was your advocacy that resulted in the preservation of this space,” Brock said. “The subsequent formation of the North Park Village Park Advisory Council has continued to encourage community engagement and was a key player in establishing the conservation easement that protects this land through at least 2064.”
But Brock said the nature center’s staff noticed the area known as Walking Stick Woods was not being used much. After seeing kids play near an old tree in the area, she said she realized kids needed little to no guidance to play in the woods — they get creative and really appreciate being in nature.
“The Chicago Park District’s mission is children first. Nothing speaks to this as clearly as the idea of nature play,” Brock said.
That unstructured play led to the park district launching a Nature Play Space initiative so children can have hands-on experiences in nature, Brock said.
“We appreciate and love the story that there was a generation that fought for this land,” said Carolin Colón, a parent of a Forest Playschool student. “Now we need a new generation to maintain it as caretakers.”
She said the school’s parents volunteer once a month to help remove invasive plants and help clean up the woods.
“We don’t want these woods to be lost or abused and we’re showing our children how to love the forest,” Colón said. “We’re following in the footsteps of what they started and I hope they can eventually see this. We’re walking parallel lines, we’re just a new generation. We’re not trying to take anything away, we want to let them know we’re with them.”
Teresa Weed, the school’s director, has previously said the students experience all seasons in the 12-acre woods. Unless there’s a deep freeze or severe rain, students begin their day playing in the woods before working on art projects, listening to stories, helping prepare snacks over a warm fire or tending to the school’s garden — all outside.
During severe weather, the preschool’s students relocate to the park’s field house or school is canceled.
On March 16, the Forest Playschool will be hosting an open house from 10 a.m. to noon at Walking Stick Woods for anyone who wants to learn more about the preschool.
“I’m so delighted the meeting was so full and so engaged. I hope everyone sees the continuum of the preservation of the land at its outset and the existence of one of the first forest play schools in the United States on that land decades later,” Teresa Weed said, the Forest Playschool’s director. “That the people who preserved these lands can be proud of the school as part of their legacy.”
Below is a letter that was circulated online ahead of the March 5 meeting objecting to Forest Playschool using the Walking Stick Woods.
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