COLUMBIA — Children will be able to explore a forest just their size in Stephens Lake Park in a few months.
In November, construction will begin on Children's Grove in the park. It will include five stone walls, dozens of magnolia and crabapple trees and informational signs.
"We thought it would be neat to create a miniature forest on children’s scale," said Mike Snyder, park planning and development superintendent at the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department. "There will be smaller trees that are only about 15 feet tall. So when the kid is inside and underneath a canopy, they are in a forest that’s their size."
The $20,000 project is being paid for with donations from local businesses, social service agencies and individuals.
In addition to serving as a play area, another goal of the grove is to encourage conversation about children's mental health and participation in public education programs. Dedication is planned for the first Saturday in May, in conjunction with national mental health week for children.
"The grove stands for the people of Boone County standing tall in their testimony that they want the best for our children in terms of their health — physical, emotional and psychological," said Anne Deaton, one of the planners of the project.
The grove is a collaborative effort of many groups, but the project is housed under Putting Kids First, a Boone County children's mental health initiative.
"We want parents to be able to talk about mental health without the stigma, without being embarrassed continue that community conversation," Putting Kids First chairperson Christine Corcoran said.
Deaton hopes that the area will be the first of many groves in the community, connected by signage displaying messages supportive of children's mental health.
"We hope that schools, business, hospitals, anyone who has space would consider planting one or more trees," Deaton said.
When plans for Stephens Lake Park were made in 2001, it was decided that the 116-acre area would include elements of a traditional park and of an arboretum. The Children's Grove will support the arboretum portion of the park's goals.
"It will be a neat showy feature," Snyder said. "It’s something that will be beautiful for all park users and will draw attention to the cause of children’s mental health."
Deaton had the idea for the grove after last year's tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"It got me thinking about how that tragedy compelled us all to come together as adults to be there for children," Deaton said. "We need to stand up and say we will be there for our children."
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