By Jana Bounds EBS Contributor

BIG SKY– Kids will soon be able to sail the high seas, battle salty marauders and “walk the plank” without even leaving the mountains.

The unassuming brown sign marking Kircher Park that has existed just south of Lone Peak Trail for nearly a decade will soon be replaced. The park, donated to the Big Sky Community Organization by the Kircher family in 2008, actually consists of 7 acres, most often used by fishermen seeking rainbow trout on the South Fork of the Gallatin River. This is all about to change.

Kircher Park will be renamed Kircher Discovery Park and the area will be graced with the voices of playing kids and young adults at the end of September at the grand opening of a one-of-a-kind 525-square-foot tree fort playground built to look like a ship.

“We hope that it inspires creative play and an appreciation for the natural surroundings,” said BSCO Executive Director Ciara Wolfe. “That was our goal, to have that natural type of playscape.”

Ken Miller, owner of Montana Treehouse Company—the company building the fort—said the tree fort will look like a Spanish galleon, with a climbing wall off the aft of the ship, several slides and a cargo net extending from the ship to a nearby tree.  

“It reminds me of the way things were when I was a kid back in the ‘70s, when play was more about being outside instead of video games,” said Miller, who has been building outdoor adventure structures for 30 years.

He said that along with creative play comes creative building, and the structures he builds evolve as they’re created. Now, his team is looking into designing a sail-type feature to make it look more like a ship when approached from the trail.

Thirteen-year old Nate McClain recently went to see the structure under construction and said it already looks like a ship.

“I think it’s going to be amazing,” he said. “It looks really cool.”

Both Wolfe and Miller said the location presented a construction challenge. The 0.3-mile footpath leading to the fort was too narrow for four-wheelers or other machinery to haul equipment. Everything had to be hauled in by hand, including 21 posts weighing 600 pounds each that were placed in hand-dug holes 4 feet deep.

“We had to devise some interesting ways to create the right kind of leverage to get those posts vertical because they’re 16 feet tall,” he said.

Wolfe said that Redleaf Engineering was hired to create the plans to ensure the structure was engineered correctly and meet playground standards, and Montana Treehouse was hired to build it.

Tree thinning and trail creation allowing for the build were done by the Rotary Club of Big Sky last summer and funding for the project was secured this spring from Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, Moonlight Community Foundation, Simkins-Hallin and individual donors to BSCO.

Wolfe said it was important to the foundation to create more opportunity for creative play for the growing student population, which she believes has nearly tripled in the past decade.

Science backs the importance of creative play. Neuroscientist Marion Diamond proved that enriched environments actually change the structure of the brain in an experiment first conducted in 1964.

Her experiment consisted of two groups of rats: one group raised in solitary confinement, the other in toy-filled colonies. The rats with toys and pals developed larger brains, thicker cerebral cortices and were smarter, able to navigate mazes much faster.

Diamond argued this theory extended to all animals—Including humans.  Her findings altered the way childhood and brain development are regarded today.