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A Walk on the Wild Side: Houston Arboretum’s New Nature Playscape

Meg Scott
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Nature Playscape

The Nature Playscape abuts the woodlands of the Houston Arboretum, where wildlife and plant life thrive. 

One of the final crown jewels in the Houston Arboretum’s massive restoration and transformation plan – the Nature Playscape – opened May 10, 2021. The new play area now welcomes children to explore its climbing poles, reminiscent of the native grasses seen on a trail walk through the Arboretum’s savanna, and crawl across rope nets, like an orb weaver spider on its web. 

The Nature Playscape has been closed since its installation mid-pandemic, due to precautions related to the virus, so the excitement has been building for families who could only peer over the fence at the untouched area while visiting the Arboretum for a dose of nature.

Beyond the immediately prominent climbing poles at the entrance (my 5-year-old’s favorite part!), lies a haven of larger-than-life, nature-themed play areas. The “Stump Scramble” invites children to move up, down and around a mound of tree stumps and tunnels, like a squirrel.

Wetland Walk & Water Play

The “Wetland Walk & Water Play” area of the new Nature Playscape is an exploration of water movement and a refreshing break from the heat after running around. 

The “Wetland Walk & Water Garden” helps children cool down in the Texas heat with water play while operating a pump fountain over a lacquered wooden cascade. 

Before the Nature Playscape was installed, there was a small sand pit for children to play after a walk through the trails, and the memory of that beloved nook of the Arboretum is honored here. The new Nature Playscape features the “Toddler Territory” with a large sand pit complete with digging tools that leads into a toddler-friendly climbing frame with a shallow incline and a variety of textures and surfaces to traverse. The larger “Lumber Yard” – for the bigger kids – features fallen tree logs to climb, strewn over a sea of sand. Natural materials abound throughout the expansive Nature Playscape, bringing the children in safe contact with the surroundings they will have explored on the Arboretum’s trails. 

Grasslands

Climb in the native grasslands at the entrance to the Houston Arboretum’s new Nature Playscape. 

The most unique aspect of this Nature Playscape is the experience of a playground amongst a nature sanctuary, where native Houston ecosystems are thriving. With one eye on your children as they climb and run at the Nature Playscape, keep the other eye on the surroundings, where you might spot a new bird, butterfly, or flower in bloom. On the walk from the car to the Nature Playscape on the day of our visit, we spotted a blue jay hunting on the ground, a (very long) rat snake slithering across the walking path and an early blooming passion flower. We got our fix of nature as well as some wiggles out! 

The Arboretum’s website offers this caveat for visiting: “If you are coming to visit the new Nature Playscape, please call our front desk in advance at 713-681-8433 to make sure that it is not closed for a private rental or school program.” Their Instagram account gives notice that the Nature Playscape is closed for private birthday parties each Saturday and Sunday morning (9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.) through the end of May. 

Snake

A rat snake slithers across the path behind the administrative building at the Houston Arboretum on the path toward the Nature Playscape from the Memorial Drive parking lot. 

To get the most out of your visit to the Arboretum, where non-members will have to pay a $5 fee if you use the Arboretum parking, be sure to explore beyond the play area. For the youngest visitors, a simple toddle on the Blackberry Trail (approximately 1/3-mile loop just behind the Nature Center building and Nature Playscape) may offer enough sights and sounds for your budding naturalist, complete with blackberry and American beautyberry vines. 

Passion flowers

Passion flowers bloom along the side of the trail approaching the Nature Playscape. 

If you’re seeking a slightly longer jaunt, head out on the Inner Loop (approximately 2/3 miles) toward the Meadow Pond, where a young alligator lives amongst lily pads, box turtles, and herons. Decks and benches surround the pond, making this a perfect spot for a rest and the always-necessary kid snack break. For the older children, traverse the Outer Loop, a wider path almost two miles long, and duck back into the woods at the Couch Birding Trail for a scenic overlook over the Buffalo Bayou. Don’t forget the bug spray, regardless of your journey of choice! Check out the Houston Arboretum Trail Map before you go. 

Editor's note: Find more on hiking trails in Houston here

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