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.