Learning Through Leisure

By Ann Cipperly

On a sunny afternoon, a mother gathers e last of her family’s lunch from the rea as the children race to the Nature Playground to climb into the tree house with a Little Free Library inside. A morning of hiking, observing turtles at the pond, exploring the butterfly garden and the waterfall has been a fun outing for the entire family at the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center (KPNC) in Auburn. As Dr. Louise Kreher Turner and her husband, Frank, were facing retirement years, they began to feel that the city of Auburn was losing many of its green spaces. They had purchased 120 acres of cotton farmland in the 1940s and turned it into a cattle ranch.

The Turners decided to donate their property off North College Street to the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University in 1993. It became the Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve, which was later renamed the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center. The preserve was established as an out- reach program for people of all ages to enjoy with a strong focus on families and children. Dr. Turner, who had been a professor in physical education at Auburn University, wanted their land used for education and research by Auburn University students and professors. Dr. Turner worked with volunteers, who helped her with gardening projects.

One of these volunteers, Margaret Holler, took over managing the preserve, and opening it to the public several days a week. She also helped develop some programs for area schools with the help of other volunteers, including Karni Perez and Jane Bell. Jennifer Lolley was hired in June 2007 as the first full-time employee as an out- reach administrator. Jennifer and her fam- ily had moved to Auburn from Dothan in 2006. Jennifer, who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in biology, had been working at Landmark Park in Dothan, teaching environmental education programs.

Dr. Turner was still living when Jennifer started to work, and she enjoyed spending time with her learning about the history of the preserve. Dr. Turner lived to be 98 years old and left a foundation that helps the KPNC on a regular basis with projects, such as the Entry Pavilion and Pond Pavilion, which is under construction.

“Our theme of learning through leisure can be observed throughout the property,” says Jennifer. “There are learning station sites to view and learn about birds, honey bees, reptiles and other wildlife. We have an entire water system including freshwater springs that follow down a creek into a pond and to a natural waterfall. There are many different ecosystems, gardens and over six miles of hiking trails in the 120 acres.”

Jennifer, who was building chairman of the playground at Landmark Park, knew some kind of unique play area would be a great addition to the preserve for families. The Nature Playground, built beneath a canopy of three huge trees, features big boulders, crossing logs, a tree house, spider web, eagles nest and beavers lodge. Educational signage near these features teach about eagles, spiders and beavers. The preserve is a favorite site for Eagle Boy Scout and Girl Scout Silver projects.

“There are currently about 60 Eagle Scout projects,” says Jennifer, “including outdoor classrooms, informational kiosks, benches, boardwalks, and nature observation sites. Many of the Scouts hold their Eagle Scout ceremonies on the property.” Around 6,000 children participate each year in environmental education programs. Many programs are designed for parents and toddlers, and last year a nature preschool was created.

“The Woodland Wonders Nature Preschool is Auburn’s first nature preschool, and the second in the state of Alabama,” adds Jennifer. “Children spend their school time exploring outside and uncovering knowledge in an environment where curiosity and child-led discovery is encouraged.”

A large staff of part-time teachers help to provide the programming for area schools. The preserve is also a field trip destination for schools as far away as Dothan and Birmingham. When Jennifer started at the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center, visitation was under 3,000. They now have over 30,000 visi- tors a year. Jennifer believes because of Covid- 19, there were 40,000 visitors in 2020 since being outdoors has been safer alternative to indoor activities. KPNC is open every day from sunrise to sunset with no admission fee. Dogs are not allowed since it is a wildlife preserve. Bikes are also not allowed.

“An education building for programs and the nature pre-school is being designed for construction sometime this year,” says Jennifer. “This will allow programming to continue even on hot or rainy cold days. This unique, beautiful building will feature cross-laminated timber construction methods.”

Parking on North College is near the play- ground, picnic areas and the pavilion. Parking off of the Farmville Road entrance is closer to the pond, butterfly and vegetable garden. For further information on the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center, visit wp.auburn.edu./preserve.