By Sam Elliott
Conner Prairie’s latest attraction aims to reconnect guests of all ages with nature, using a secluded and previously unused section of the interactive museum and historical park as a new stop on its nature trail through the woods and to highlight Indiana’s use of natural resources over time.
There’s also a four-story, 45-foot-tall tree house.
The central piece of the new experience, which opened at Conner Prairie July 1, was designed to instill wonder in Conner Prairie’s younger guests due to its sheer size while igniting nostalgia in their parents.
“We did focus groups in the beginning and as soon as you said ‘tree house,’ the adults just lit up,” Conner Prairie Exhibit Developer Cathy Donnelly said. “They gave us lists of things that came to mind of what a tree house meant to them. That was fun to hear adults talking about powerful memories … and people said, ‘Oh yeah, we had one when we were little and yeah, we played outside more than our kids do.’”
Conner Prairie added a nature walk trail through a portion of its unused woods in 2013 as an easy way to encourage guests to get outdoors.
“There’s been test after test after test of the ways being outdoors can make a difference. It can soothe you, it can make you happy, it can give you a whole new sense of being out in an elusive, sensory place,” Conner Prairie Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Cathy Ferree said. “Part of our strategic plan was how do we use the property we have that we haven’t already used and give people exposure to the parts of the property they haven’t seen before? The nature trail was one pretty easy way we could do that and get people outdoors.”
The 6,000-square-foot, $800,000 exhibit isn’t far from Conner Prairie’s Prairietown, Conner House and Civil War experiences, in one of the last unused parts of the property within a short walk from the rest of the park.
“Out here, you feel isolated even from Conner Prairie. It’s the last wedge of land we could develop in sort of our sphere of where people want to go,” Conner Prairie Director of Exhibits Brain Mancuso said. “It’s very centrally located, but it’s secluded. It’s really a perfect location to explore nature.
“The great thing about the tree house is it’s a lot of different concepts rolled into one to create this really unique presentation of activities and the structure you get to go up in,” he added. “We didn’t want to make it feel like it’s for kids only. We want the whole family to stay together and have an experience. The kids might run ahead, but you’re still reliving some of that experience of maybe building a tree house in the backyard … We just have a bigger backyard and a full construction company to build our tree house.”
Surrounding the Treetop Outpost tree house are a collection of experiences designed to get visitors interacting with nature and Indiana’s natural resources in ways both Hoosiers past and present could relate.
“The other aspect of what we do is we look at how we can help the schools and the teachers and what they’re doing. Natural resources are a topic teachers use in third and fourth grade,” Conner Prairie VP and COO Cathy Ferree said. “This area really focuses on natural resources, but it also looks at how we can connect back these types of topics with the rest of the property and with your community and with the world. For instance, there’s a piece of a sculpture of Noah Noble. He was a friend of William Conner’s so when you go into the Conner House, you’ll read about Noah Noble.”
The bust of Noble is part of the experience full of Indiana natural resources used in construction and building, while other sections’ focuses include an archaeology dig, nature and its use in art as well as music and sounds of nature.
“You’re getting them to do that historical thinking comparing and contrasting the present and the past,” Ferree said. “These experiences are really open ended, so each time you come you can do something different … The great thing about informal learning is that it’s an integration of fun.”