Change is right around the corner at Bellaire's Nature Discovery Center, and we had the chance to take a sneak peek at everything the newly transformed center will have to offer. I remember my first visit to the Nature Discovery Center very clearly - it was like unearthing a hidden gem; it was (and is!) a small patch of nature inside the concrete jungle known as Houston. Under the name of the Gateway Project, the center has received a facelift in almost every area, from new education resources to added nature trails.
The first upgrade is immediately noticeable. The parking lot at the north end is now open to the public, allowing patrons to park next to the historic Henshaw House. On our last visit, this parking lot was closed, so any visitors had to park over by the Russ Pitman playground and walk through the outdoor nature center to reach the Henshaw House and take advantage of the indoor Discovery Rooms. It's definitely nice to be able to take advantage of close parking if you're coming to the center for a day camp or class. In fact, the entire front of the house is more visible from the road now thanks to tweaks in the landscaping. Henry Owen, executive director for Nature Discovery Center, explained that the goal is to make the house and center more visible from the street so that anyone passing by can see it. Opening up this area showcases the historic home and gives the center quite a bit of curb appeal.
To the right of the house, they've installed more fun features, including a sitting area known as the Critter Classroom. This space is perfect for outdoor lessons, and students are able to sit on benches crafted from a recently removed Chinese Tallow tree; there's even a custom owl seat that was carved into the remaining stump. It also is where the Center's three animal enclosures, which include bunnies, quail and turtles, will call home.
Behind the Critter Classroom are the pavilions, Sensory Garden, and Thrush Hollow. This area was closed off during my last visit and almost entirely dismantled, so being able to see it completely redone was a treat! One of the biggest additions is the new outdoor restroom, which not only has two unisex bathrooms (one with a changing table for all you fellow moms with babies out there!), but also an outdoor sink with four faucets, a water fountain, AND a water bottle refill station. We bring our water bottles everywhere, and these refill stations are clutch - I've loved seeing them become more popular! The pavilions got a facelift as well, and with that came a really neat addition: the stone floor has leaf imprints scattered across it, and each imprint comes from leaves found at the Center. Owen proudly explained how the imprints were practiced multiple times prior to being set in stone (pun maybe intended) and it definitely has an almost whimsical effect on the overall feel of the area.
A walk through the Sensory Garden and Thrush Hollow showed more improvements that will make classes and field trips held at the center more interesting and the learning takeaways more tangible. Renovating a nature area sounds almost counterproductive - like it would detract from the natural habitat - but that's not the case here; every change has been carefully thought out and implemented in a way that only enhances the natural beauty of the area. It's easy to see how each facet of the center piques the curiosity and interest of young, inquisitive minds.
After visiting the main area of the Center, Owen then took us over to the nature trail that connects Henshaw House to Russ Pitman Park. Prior to the renovations, which have been made possible through a partnership with Resource Environmental Solutions, a pathway made from stone pavers gave you a straight shot from the Discovery Rooms to the playground. Because the pathway is prone to flooding, the pavers began to sink into the earth over time, making it a mud-fest any time it rained. To fix this, the trail is getting reconstructed as well. Gone is the straight pathway from one end to the other, and in its place is a path that curves through the different Habitat Zones. As Owen explained, nothing in nature is straight, and the twists and turns in the new path are meant to invite and encourage exploration. The pavers have also been removed and are being replaced with a Porous Pave nature trail made from 750 recycled tires, which will allow water to flow through it instead of just pooling on top when it rains.
Other installations include a raised wooden boardwalk that completes the ADA accessible trail loop, seating for bird watchers, nature-goers and photographers, and a teaching deck at Cypress Pond. Custom interpretive signage explaining the different habitats will be placed throughout the nature park, and maps will be located at both entrances.
Long-term, Owen hopes to overhaul the playground area and turn it into a space where kids are able to get in touch with nature, learn risk assessment and explore their adventurous side. His belief is that a personal connection to nature is essential for children, and this can be achieved by encouraging them to play in and explore the outdoors.
Completed renovations will be unveiled to the public on May 6, 2017, at the Center's free event, "Gateway to Nature: Experience our Park Transformation." There will be a short ceremony at 10 a.m. to thank donors and contributors, followed by several family-friendly activities that showcase the changes throughout the park.
Discovery Room hours at Nature Discovery Center are from noon-5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.
All photos by Rachael Cherry