When is a fallen tree not a tree? When it’s a treehouse. Or a boat. Or a tightrope!

With the opening of the new Ijams Nature Playscape at Grayson Subaru Preserve, children will be able to let their imaginations run wild, in the wild.

Students in the Tuesday/Thursday class of the Ijams Nature Play Club, a part-time, 100% outdoor preschool, were the first to try out the new free-play area, which has opened to the public on May 9.

A little rain won’t stop these kids when they want to play. On this particularly damp day, the students, decked out in colorful rain gear, hiked from their home base by the Miller Building to the playscape, which is about half a mile away. When they arrived, they enjoyed their snack in the big “nest” and then explored around it.

With their screams of delight echoing through the forest, the students, ranging in age from 3 to 5, gave the Ijams Nature Playscape a muddy thumbs up!

The nature center’s new space allows young children to climb hills, dig, build, crawl and engage with nature in an organic, unstructured way. From a distance, parents can look on as their kids explore the area, which features tunnels, log steps, a “sandbox,” a creek and different “rooms” to play in on a 13.46-acre property adjacent to Mead’s Quarry.

“We’re calling it a new way to play, but for generations, many of us had the opportunity to roam and play in the woods, empty lots and fields that surrounded our homes and neighborhoods,” Ijams Executive Director Amber Parker said. “We remember the freedom we had to use our imagination, test ourselves and become a part of the natural landscape, at least until we were called home for dinner.

“Today’s children don’t get the chance to play like this for a variety of reasons, so Ijams created a place to give children, parents and caregivers a safe place where that connection to nature can happen,” she said. “It’s a place where there is a whole lot of ‘yes’ and not a lot of ‘no.’”

Parker said research conducted over the past two decades shows how an early childhood connection to nature through unstructured play helps develop critical cognitive, social and physical skills. However, the lack of natural areas near homes, barriers preventing access to open spaces and safety concerns may prevent these experiences.

“Ijams Nature Center’s mission is to be an educational resource for everyone and eliminate barriers whenever possible,” Parker said. “But as a nonprofit organization, Ijams cannot do that alone. This amazing space for children in our community would not have been possible without significant support from Grayson Subaru and Subaru of America.”

“When Ijams presented Grayson Subaru with the idea of creating a place where kids can play in nature, where they can use their imaginations and develop a love of the outdoors, we knew it was something we wanted to support,” Grayson Subaru Sales Manager Randy Carter said. “Subaru of America and Grayson Subaru are committed to helping people find outdoor adventures. Providing our youngest children with this opportunity is the perfect fit for Subaru, and we are honored to be a part of this project.”

Ijams also received support from The Aslan Foundation and Tennessee Department of Agriculture Forestry Division to fund initial invasive plant removal on the property.

“Partnerships are critical to everything Ijams does,” Parker said. “Volunteers gave and are continuing to give thousands of hours of their time to remove invasive plants from the space, as well as helping with building projects. The Ijams Natural Resource Management team has spent several years coordinating these efforts and has logged countless hours preparing this space. It truly takes a team to build a dream.”

“The Ijams Nature Preschoolers and students in the Play Club helped create this space,” she said. “The playscape’s “sandbox” is actually filled with chat, which consists of small stone fragments that are larger than sand but smaller than pea gravel. Ijams uses it as a base for its tent pads, and the kids just love it. You can learn a lot from watching children explore and play.”

Like the rest of the Ijams grounds, the Ijams Nature Playscape at Grayson Subaru Preserve will be open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. There is no admission charge.