By Rebecca Bratek
Hector Berreby slid down a tree trunk, smiling and laughing before scraping his knee on the descent.
The 3-year-old’s eyes welled, as if he were about to sob, but he picked himself up, cracked a toothy grin, screamed “Wheeee!” and asked his father to help him back onto the log.
“Daddy, why this tree fall down because of the storm?” Hector asked after sliding down a few more times.
“Well, that’s because that’s what storms do, Hector,” David Berreby said to his son.
“When we were in the sandbox, remember when you planted your tree? And then it didn’t stay up and it kind of just went splahgoooush? That’s what the wind will do if it’s strong enough. It catches the top of the tree and then it pushes it so hard that the tree breaks and it falls over.”
Berreby, a 55-year-old freelance writer from Park Slope, brought Hector to play in the Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area, a new play area in Nellie’s Lawn, which is located in the northeast region of Prospect Park.
The playground, which opened Oct. 6, is made entirely of Hurricane Sandy-felled trees last year. It’s meant to simulate the experience children would have in the woods or forest, climbing on naturally fallen trees. And because of the rustic makeup of the area, Berreby was able to teach Hector about things he can’t usually see in his urban Brooklyn backyard.
“We can talk about hurricanes and trees and ants,” Berreby said. “It’s not exactly like being in the forest, but it sort of segues naturally into talking about trees that are still alive.”
Recycled trees and other materials have been fashioned into makeshift slides, like the trunk Hector slid down, and into benches, crawl spaces and bridges. One tree was even made into a waterspout, which children can pump and watch the water flow to a muddy basin at the end of the trunk.
“When I had come to this park right after Sandy, a lot of the places were closed,” said Betty Smalls, a 58-year-old Crown Heights resident who brought her grandson, Toby, to explore the park. “They had all of the paths closed off because so many big trees had fallen.”
Now, there is a sand pit in the middle of the park section, filled with trunks children can climb on and walk across. Many parents, including Berreby, said they couldn’t get their children past the sand pit and into the other half of the playground because there was too much to explore.
“For [Hector], it was a horse, and then it was a whale and then it was a bird’s nest,” Berreby said. “And you could build that out of metal, but it’s nice that it’s wood.”
The Prospect Park Alliance, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the park’s operating budget, researched other natural play areas across the globe before deciding to build a playground that deviated from traditional metal or plastic slides and swings. The play area was built with the help of a $200,000 donation from the Donald and Barbara Zucker Family Foundation, a private grant-making foundation for which the park is named.
The alliance looked at parks in England created through London Play, an initiative supporting the use of natural equipment that allows children to experience a wide range of play opportunities. The group also looked at the Berkeley Marina Adventure Playground, a 34-year-old natural play area in Berkeley, Calif.
“Prospect Park lost about 500 trees as a result of (Superstorm) Sandy,” said Prospect Park spokesman Eric Landau. “This is really a very creative and fantastic way to give these trees new life, to give them new purpose after they can no longer be trees in the park.”
And the new, natural play area in Prospect Park is the first of its kind in New York City, according to Department of Parks & Recreation spokeswoman Meghan Lalor.
The play area is the first step in renovations to the park and is a way to reintroduce the public to the northeast region of the park, Landau said. The park’s next step is to continue restoring about 27 acres in the upper section. In December, Lakeside, the park’s major capital project, will be completed and opened to the public. It includes a dual ice skating rink for the winter, which will transform into a roller skating rink and water play area in the summer months, and adds eight acres to the park.
“It’s perfect for Park Slope,” said Joanna Dosik, a 38-year-old attorney from Park Slope who brought her 3-year-old son, Dylan, to play in the park. “He was not into it at all at first sight. But he loves to climb things, particularly trees, and now he doesn’t want to leave.”