Nature Discovery Zone at the Sombrero Marsh


The Thorne Nature Experience’s mission is to “build Earth stewardship by providing youth with joyful, hands-on, place-based environmental education experiences that foster an emotional connection to nature.” This envelope-pushing project aimed to provide a gateway experience into nature at Sombrero Marsh for those who otherwise would not have the opportunity or access to the bounty that Colorado’s natural landscape provides.

Working within the strict regulatory framework of childcare policy, the design team and staff at Thorne Nature Experience team took this challenge and created a series of nature ‘vignettes’ – carefully chosen slices of natural habitat to provide this access within the site boundaries. These nature play experiences were layered with sensory play, shifting the focus in a holistic approach to the mental, physical, and social well-being of the child and not simply on what is deemed ‘fun’. With these sensory rich experiences, the children learn from nature and then become the teachers to in turn connect their parents to nature.


The Thorne Nature Experience in Boulder County, Colorado is home to a different kind of learning environment. Connected to the wetlands of the Sombrero Marsh, this center has an intrinsic connection with nature which complements the center’s philosophy of fostering emotional connections with nature in youth. The belief is that encouraging this emotional connection will instill environmental ethics and stewardship in youth. This belief was also the impetus behind the design. Although this philosophy is carried out everyday by educators at Thorne Nature Experience, there was a lack of programmable spaces near the center to encourage the youth to engage with nearby nature at day camps, as well as after-school and community programs.

The nature play advocates at Thorne Nature Experience initiated the project to provide local youth with open-ended nature play and programmable spaces closer to the building on-site, but also to push the limits of nature play and unleash the potential that nature provides to propel youth education and development. The design goal was to amplify the surrounding natural environment and attempt to replicate authentic nature experiences for visiting youth, not simply a focus on which products or components they might enjoy or ‘find fun’.

The design kicked-off with a 3D drone survey, mapping the surrounding topography in order to better understand the area at large. This study helped determine the environmental impact of the design as well as allowed the designers to seamlessly integrate the project site with the adjacent marshlands.

Against the grain of the typical formalized and licensed child care regulatory process, risk assessment was an integral part of the design process, as both the facilitators of the Nature experience and the designers of the space know that nature play must include risky play without ‘breaking the rules’ or endangering youth. The team carefully navigated compliance policy together in a delicate balance between safety and the challenges inherent in nature – for the sake of the children and the play value of the completed project.

Spurred on by being set loose to be as creative as possible, the design team sought to maintain the continuum of context from the Sombrero marsh, including all the elements of real nature on site – water, topography, changing habitats, boulders, logs and vegetative shade. This would allow youth to experience real nature closer to the center, but also be able to seamlessly explore the greater context of nearby nature on longer expeditions.

There were several challenges to the successful completion of this project – both in the design stage as well as the installation process. One of these challenges was design communication. The design process ran the gamut from early ‘bubble’ diagrams to concept sketches to a detailed drawing set for the installation team and this process was primarily carried out through virtual media due to COVID-19 travel and contact restrictions.

Furthermore, as the site was adjacent to a local conservation area, and due to its location in Colorado, the permit process was a challenge in flexibility, education and communication. The intention to create an authentic nature experience with all the related risks meant that special attention was paid to compliance with ASTM, as well as ensuring that every element met inclusivity goals of Thorne Nature Experience. These goals were paramount, as this organization promotes inclusion as one of its core values, offering camp scholarships to low-income and minority youth as well as opening their doors to the public each week so that every child has the opportunity to make a connection with nature. The newly designed space also had to be inclusive of a wide range of ages and abilities, from pre-kindergarten through to high school age students, answering play and exploration needs for each visitor.

The permit process further included the fire department due to the project’s location in Colorado and the danger of wildfires. This was an intense proceeding with back and forth dialogue between the fire department and design team. The prescribed established code did not transcribe well when dealing with  an authentic nature play experience as opposed to traditional playground components. However, after visiting the site, and hearing about the process and philosophy of nature play, the permit was approved. This project was meeting its intention of pushing the envelope on real nature experiences.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge was budget restrictions. From an organization that relies heavily on donations, the project was ambitious from the beginning. The constrained budget meant that local sourcing and re-use of materials that would have been waste was key. Collaboration with local tradespeople and county partners was key to procuring these materials. As the installation neared a close, additional logs and boulders were even gathered from a neighboring construction site so the installation could be completed under budget.

As the property close to the building all the way out to the marsh is completely open, shade was a necessity, and it was provided both in the form of a gazebo – as a gathering space – as well as through the planting of native vegetation. A mini-wetland with a sandbar was constructed within the project limits to model the nearby marsh, as well as a no-mow meadow and grasslands.  A custom log climber consisting of a massive fallen tree was installed as a centerpiece and a nearby ‘Lion’s Pride’ boulder park with an embankment slide enhanced the savannah-like surrounding grasslands. Accessible pathways connect each element of the design as well as complement and add to the local trails of the nearby wetlands.

These elements and connections helped improve the educational programming of the Nature Center’s daycares and day camps by providing the opportunity to collect native specimens to study and examine as well as provide access to greater biodiversity in an outdoor learning environment. This answers the project and organization’s goals of encouraging earth stewardship of nearby natural resources by teaching each visitor environmental ethics and guardianship.

This design/build project met every original intention. The finished project was named The Nature Discovery Zone at the Sombrero Marsh and its success is enjoyed by the center’s continued and enhanced programming. An authentic nature experience was provided with programmable spaces near the center; an experience that also improved connection to the local conservation area adjacent to the property. The design includes graduated challenges for a wide range of ages that maximizes risk while meeting compliance and safety requirements, giving visiting youth the freedom to explore nature on their own terms.

Plant List

  • White Oak
  • Sugar Maple
  • Serviceberry
  • Smooth Sumac
  • Red Twig Dogwood
  • Rocky Mountain Maple
  • Multi-Stemmed Red Maple
  • Staghorn Sumac
  • Pussy Willow
  • White Cedar

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):