5 Favorite Places for Nature Play

When I was growing up, entertaining myself meant having my hands in some dirt, picking vegetables from our garden, looking out for bugs, exploring the woods behind our house, making up tall tales all the while. It meant climbing trees and picking flowers and sliding down hills and getting making mud pies. It meant making friends with a raccoon, a duck, a turtle, and countless frogs. It meant catching lightning bugs and searching for lady bugs. There was no cable television or Netflix, no Internet of Information or World Wide Web to get caught up in.

I think about all the lessons I learned from nature. I learned all the simple things — that some plants make you itch, that ticks can hide behind your ears, that ants really can get into your pants if you're not careful. I learned about my senses - to not just see, but to touch and to smell and to taste, though I also learned that tasting everything wasn't always the best thing. I learned that tree limbs are stronger than you think, that I can't catch a bird, that flowers only bloom for a short while, and that vegetables are best right off of the plant. But I also learned the bigger things. I learned about independence and self-reliance, about guidance and exploration and discovery. I learned how to forge my own path and how to find my way back home. I learned about diversity, about how whether something is a weed or a tree or a bird or a bug or a dog or a girl, we're all here, together, and that's what's important. I learned to fall down and to get back up, to calculate risks and to take chances. I learned to challenge my mind but know my limits.

There are so many reasons nature play is important, both for children and for adults. Not only does nature play help us develop an awareness for and appreciation of the environment, but it improves our mental, physical and spiritual health by giving us opportunities to learn, meditate, exercise and de-stress. For children, nature play helps improve their balance, eyesight, their sense of space. It supports creativity, resourcefulness, problem solving and self-confidence and improves concentration, curiosity and academic performance.

Fortunately, the Austin area provides plenty of spaces for nature play — both for children and adults. Here are a couple of our favorite spaces that both children and adults can enjoy.

1. Zilker Park and Botanical Gardens. Zilker Park is Austin's most popular park, and for good reason. The park offers one of Austin's best — and most used — playscapes, boasting all the usual suspects as well as musical instruments and a train. Families can rent kayaks and canoes nearby. Across the street at the Zilker Botantical Gardens, kids can travel the world by exploring a bamboo forest, a Japanese koi pond, a desert cactus garden and a prehistoric dinosaur garden.

1. Zilker Park and Botanical Gardens. Zilker Park is Austin's most popular park, and for good reason. The park offers one of Austin's best — and most used — playscapes, boasting all the usual suspects as well as musical instruments and a train. Families can rent kayaks and canoes nearby. Across the street at the Zilker Botantical Gardens, kids can travel the world by exploring a bamboo forest, a Japanese koi pond, a desert cactus garden and a prehistoric dinosaur garden.

2. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Not only does the Wildflower Center boast beautiful gardens and native plant educational opportunities, but it has a ton of opportunities for nature play as well. There's a family garden where kids can learn about match and geometry by walking through a Fibonacci spiral or playing a game of hopscotch. They can also climb on giant tree stumps and birds nests, catch butterflies, make their way through a shrub maze and learn to build teepees with natural objects. 

2. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Not only does the Wildflower Center boast beautiful gardens and native plant educational opportunities, but it has a ton of opportunities for nature play as well. There's a family garden where kids can learn about match and geometry by walking through a Fibonacci spiral or playing a game of hopscotch. They can also climb on giant tree stumps and birds nests, catch butterflies, make their way through a shrub maze and learn to build teepees with natural objects. 

3. McKinney Roughs Nature Park. Located about 30 minutes east of Austin, McKinney Roughs Nature Park offers beautiful demonstration gardens, miles and miles of hiking trails, zip lining, and challenge courses for youth groups. It also boasts the McKinney Roughs Natural Science Center, which offers lessons in everything from fishing and fish adaptations to medicinal plants and tree identification. 

3. McKinney Roughs Nature Park. Located about 30 minutes east of Austin, McKinney Roughs Nature Park offers beautiful demonstration gardens, miles and miles of hiking trails, zip lining, and challenge courses for youth groups. It also boasts the McKinney Roughs Natural Science Center, which offers lessons in everything from fishing and fish adaptations to medicinal plants and tree identification. 

4. Butler Park. Conveniently located across the street from Auditorium Shores and next to the Palmer Events Center, Butler Park offers outstanding views of downtown Austin and one of the best and most colorful play fountains in all of Central Texas, perfect for those hot summer days and nights. 

4. Butler Park. Conveniently located across the street from Auditorium Shores and next to the Palmer Events Center, Butler Park offers outstanding views of downtown Austin and one of the best and most colorful play fountains in all of Central Texas, perfect for those hot summer days and nights. 

5. Mueller Lake Park.  An urban village boasting homes, apartments, retail centers and 140 acres of parks and green spaces (with more than 15,000 trees), the Mueller Lake area boasts a 6.5-mile lake with wildlife, public art, multiple interactive playscapes, community gardens, hiking and biking paths, picnic areas, swimming pools and more. 

5. Mueller Lake Park.  An urban village boasting homes, apartments, retail centers and 140 acres of parks and green spaces (with more than 15,000 trees), the Mueller Lake area boasts a 6.5-mile lake with wildlife, public art, multiple interactive playscapes, community gardens, hiking and biking paths, picnic areas, swimming pools and more. 

Need more suggestions? The Children in Nature Collaborative of Austin, online at naturerocksaustin.org, is a great resource to turn to for resources, events and recommendations. 

Favorite Places: Discovering Houston's Discovery Green

One of the entrances to Discovery Green, highlighting the connection between nature and the city that the park provides. 

One of the entrances to Discovery Green, highlighting the connection between nature and the city that the park provides. 

A 12-acre park in the heart of downtown Houston, Discovery Green has nearly everything an urban resident could ask for. Adjacent to the George R. Brown Convention Center, the beautiful park features open spaces for events, a landscaped jogging trail, a picnic area, public art, a small lake for kayaking and ice skating, a playground, various gardens and fountains, restaurants, a putting green, a shuffleboard court and a seamlessly integrated parking garage, among other features.

Here are a few things to know about Discovery Green. 


Designed by Hargreaves Associates and Lauren Griffith Associates, the park features 11 different landscaped gardens, all with unique themes. There's a butterfly and hummingbird garden, a rose garden, a scensory garden and a tropical garden, among others.

Designed by Hargreaves Associates and Lauren Griffith Associates, the park features 11 different landscaped gardens, all with unique themes. There's a butterfly and hummingbird garden, a rose garden, a scensory garden and a tropical garden, among others.


1. It's been a good investment.

With its landscape designed by leading landscape architectural firm Hargreaves Associates in San Franscisco, the park helped revitalize downtown Houston. While the total cost for land aquisition, development and landscaping reached $125 million, it has lead to $625 million in downtown developments, including a high-end residential tower, the Embassy Suites Hotel and the Hess Tower office development. There's another $1 billion in private hotel, office and housing projects still coming down the pipeline, according to the Discovery Green Conservancy. Not to mention, it's greatly increased the popularity of the George R. Brown Convention Center, attracting large businesses and industries to hold their events in Houston.

"The park has catalyzed development of the east side of downtown, as one surface parkinglot after another has been converted into corporate, residential and entertainment space," wrote Ann Duncan, the park's Chairman of the Board, and Barry Mandel, its president and director, in a letter to the public commemorating the park's 5th anniversary, in 2013.


Park visitors find time during a summer day for a kayak ride on Kinder Lake before a rain storm pushed people back indoors. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Park visitors find time during a summer day for a kayak ride on Kinder Lake before a rain storm pushed people back indoors. Photo by Maria Sprow.


2. It's well-loved.

Before the park opened to the public in 2008, stakeholders believed about 500,000 people would visit the park each year — but the actual numbers have consistently more than doubled that projection. Nowadays, the park hosts more than 600 events each year; the events alone attract an estimated 1.2 million people annually. Events include everything from Zumba classes and parkour training to poetry slams, festivals, flea markets, language classes, movie nights, concerts and city-wide holiday celebrations. "Discovery Green felt like a home away from home to so many people as soon as it was opened," wrote Duncan and Mandel.


Another view of Kinder Lake, showing the George R. Brown Convention Center at right. The convention center area is currently undergoing additional renovations with the creation of Avenida Houston, a 99,000 square foot pedestrian plaza spearheaded by preparations for the 2017 Superbowl. 

Another view of Kinder Lake, showing the George R. Brown Convention Center at right. The convention center area is currently undergoing additional renovations with the creation of Avenida Houston, a 99,000 square foot pedestrian plaza spearheaded by preparations for the 2017 Superbowl. 


3. It was created through a public-private partnership.

Before it was a park, Discovery Green was home to two large, unsightly parking garages and a small green space. Residents considered it an "undeveloped, concrete eyesore." In 2002, the city aquired part of the land, and a group of philanthropists approached the city's mayor about a long-term vision of turning the space into a urban park capable of redefining the city's downtown landscape. By 2004, the city had purchased the rest of the land needed and created the Discovery Green Conservancy non-profit to operate and maintain the park. One of the Conservancy's first jobs was to get public input on the project, an extensive process that included a series of public meetings and focus groups. Today, the park is funded through donations from foundations, companies and individuals, as well as proceeds from revenue-generating events and venues.


Many of the park's areas are separated by shaded paths and lush landscaped gardens, perfect for residents and visitors just wanting to relax during lunch or after work. 

Many of the park's areas are separated by shaded paths and lush landscaped gardens, perfect for residents and visitors just wanting to relax during lunch or after work. 


4. The park includes several public art installations

Public art is an important component of Discovery Green, helping shape visitor's interactions and experiences with the park. While Discovery Green does have seasonal and visiting installations, there are several long-term, permanent pieces the park is most known for. 

Perhaps the park's most famous public art installation, Monument au Fantome is a 33-foot-tall, free-form red, white and blue structure adjacent to the convention center. Its form and pieces mimic parts of an imaginary city, including a church, a dog and a tree. It was created by Jean Dubuffet, an internationally reknowned French sculptor who passed away in 1985. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Perhaps the park's most famous public art installation, Monument au Fantome is a 33-foot-tall, free-form red, white and blue structure adjacent to the convention center. Its form and pieces mimic parts of an imaginary city, including a church, a dog and a tree. It was created by Jean Dubuffet, an internationally reknowned French sculptor who passed away in 1985. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Possibly the most photographed installations in the park, the Synchronicity of Color art boxes were commissioned by the Discovery Green Conservancy to add color to the park and connect the underground parking garage pedestrian entrances to the park. They were designed by Margo Sawyer, an art professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was involved with the park's master planning. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Possibly the most photographed installations in the park, the Synchronicity of Color art boxes were commissioned by the Discovery Green Conservancy to add color to the park and connect the underground parking garage pedestrian entrances to the park. They were designed by Margo Sawyer, an art professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was involved with the park's master planning. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Consisting of two large, curved limestone circles placed approximately 70 feet from each other, the Listening Vessels act as sound reflectors so that visitors sitting in front of one vessel can hear the whispers of visitors sitting in front of the other. They were created by structural artist Douglas Hollis, who was inspired by natural landscapes and wind and water activated sound structures that could help extend human senses. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Consisting of two large, curved limestone circles placed approximately 70 feet from each other, the Listening Vessels act as sound reflectors so that visitors sitting in front of one vessel can hear the whispers of visitors sitting in front of the other. They were created by structural artist Douglas Hollis, who was inspired by natural landscapes and wind and water activated sound structures that could help extend human senses. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Created by American pop artist Jim Dine in 1983, The House (Heart) is a heart-shaped bronze cast featuring hand markings and the tools it takes to build a home: hammers, axes, a saw, a brick, a mallet. The tools link the present to the past and the work we do with our hands to our humanity. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Created by American pop artist Jim Dine in 1983, The House (Heart) is a heart-shaped bronze cast featuring hand markings and the tools it takes to build a home: hammers, axes, a saw, a brick, a mallet. The tools link the present to the past and the work we do with our hands to our humanity. Photo by Maria Sprow.


Residents enjoy the shade provided by Oak Allee, a cooridor of 100-year-old heritage oaks that connects the George R. Convention Center to the rest of downtown. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Residents enjoy the shade provided by Oak Allee, a cooridor of 100-year-old heritage oaks that connects the George R. Convention Center to the rest of downtown. Photo by Maria Sprow.


5. Discovery Green is Green

When they first began planning Discovery Green, stakeholders made the decision to follow environmental best practices for construction, sustainability, water efficiency, energy conversation, material procurement, and more. The park is powered by 100 percent clean and renewable energy — including wind and solar — and uses recycled groundwater to fill its lake. The park's innovations and attention to environmental stewardship earned it a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Perennial Plant Association Southern Symposium to Discuss Sustainability Issues

Register Now for the Oct. 7 Conference in Dallas

A field of dahlias. Photo from Pixabay.

A field of dahlias. Photo from Pixabay.

The Perennial Plant Association (PPA)  Southern Symposium is right around the corner! Landscape designers and contractors, plant growers, garden center retailers and others can benefit from attending the Oct. 7 conference, which will focus on landscape sustainability issues and navigating extreme weather conditions.

The 2nd Annual Southern Symposium takes place at the Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Garden's Rosine Hall. Seating is limited, so those who want to attend should register today, or by Oct. 3 at the latest. 

The day will start with speaker Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, who will discuss native perennial plants and their different uses in the landscape. Attendees will also get an update on Rose Rosette disease from Texas A & M University Associate Professor and Plant Pathologist Dr. Kevin Ong and hear from Susan Martin, the owner of Gardener Sue's News, about perennial plant benefits that go beyond eye candy, and how to market those benefits to customers and clients. Jenny Wegley, the botanical garden's director of horticulture, will give a lunchtime tour of the tripeaceal gardens. Afterward, Peace Tree Farm Owner Lloyd Traven will share his knowledge of the difference between and meaning of sustainabile, organic, Certified Organic and other gardening labels. The day will finish with Kelly Norris, the author of Plants With Style and the director of horticulture at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, discussing stylish plant alternatives. 

Industry Continuing Education Units are Available from the Texas Nursery & Landscape Association, the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and the National Association of Landscape Professionals. 

The cost to attend is $99 for PPA members, $50 for industry students and $149 for non-members. Symposium sponsors include Local Plant Source, Halleck Horticultural, North Haven Gardens, Living Earth, Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, Eason Horticultural Resources Inc. and Southwest Perennials Inc. More more information, contact Leslie Halleck at info@lesliehalleck.com. 

The Perennial Plant Association also has regional symposiums in or near Columbus, Baltimore, Chicago and Boston. For more information on those symposiums and other events, visit www.perennialplant.org