The Nature Playscape: Houston Arboretum's New Playground Was Worth the Wait
After much anticipation, the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center has finally unveiled its brand new Nature Playscape. Envisioned in the Arboretum's master plan years ago, the new play area is unlike a traditional playground; this play space is inspired by nature and designed to complement the surrounding vegetation. Native Texas flora is incorporated throughout the playground, growing lush and vibrant along the winding walkways.
The individual climbing structures and the various sections of the park are created with natural materials like logs, wood, and rope, that blend in nicely with the surrounding landscape. Best of all, this exciting new Nature Playscape is yet another attraction that visitors of the Houston Arboretum can enjoy for free.
Where Is the New Playscape?
The old play area with sand and logs was once hidden away at the edge of a trail, but this updated and much larger attraction is easier to find. The spacious new Playscape is located between the indoor Nature Center and the new education building. Follow the walkway adjacent to the Nature Center, past the open grassy courtyard, and you’ll see the Playscape entrance nearby.
What Are the Play Structures Like?
The sprawling Playscape encompasses a handful of different stations appropriate for preschoolers and elementary-aged kids. Some are more suitable for slightly older kids who are tall enough to climb, while others are accessible to younger kids who might want to play it safe closer to the ground. The Houston Arboretum was still installing the last of the structures the day we visited, but most of the amusements are ready for kids!
Lumber Yard Sand Play Area.
This section, set apart by large logs, is filled with powdery sand. Stumps and additional logs are littered throughout the space, allowing kids to not only dig and build, but use their imaginations for pretend play as well. You might find a couple of small shovels strewn around, but bring a few of your own sand toys to keep kids busy. Parents can perch nearby, preferably underneath some shade, to watch the kids delight in the soft white sand.
Styled after a clump of green bamboo, this climbing structure has footholds on each pole so that kids can hoist themselves up to the top, bit by bit. My third grader found that it was too high up for her sensibilities, so she didn’t want to climb them. Her older brother zipped right up to the top of the poles for a good look around.
Walking Up and Down the Stump Scramble.
This multi-faceted structure was my kindergartner’s favorite. He spent most of his time walking in and out of a tunnel opening, collecting lumber slices and stacking them up with a new friend. To go up to the viewing platform, kids use the "steps" made from different height tree stumps arranged together. These staggered stumps makes reaching the top a fun little challenge of its own.
Though it’s a simple design made of planks and rope, my older kids still found it fun to climb up on one side and make their way across. There are no steps to get up there, so shorter kids need a boost if they want to practice their balance skills crossing the bridge. The planks are spaced somewhat far apart, so it is likely too challenging for little kids.
Rigged to look like an oversized spider web, this stretch of intricately woven ropes beckons children to clamber across. The ropes are not far from the ground, so even if someone slips, the fall would be onto soft mulch a couple of feet below.
This little hill is great for younger kids to conquer. Even toddlers can succeed in the challenge of clambering up on different sides of the hill. One side has handholds and footholds, and the other sides are covered in either artificial grass or smooth logs.
When Should I Visit?
Although the Playscape is open every day of the week, the space may be reserved on the weekends for birthday party rentals (worth remembering!). There is a sign posted as you enter the play area announcing any upcoming planned closures. If you can visit on a weekday, you will be less likely to be disappointed. The best thing to do is to call the front desk at 713-681-8433 to see if the Playscape is available to the public on the day of your planned visit. The hours for the grounds and trails are from 7am to dusk daily. All visitors need to be off the premises by dusk.
What Should I Bring?
When you’re out being active with the kids, it’s always a good idea to bring water and a snack to replenish fluids and energy. We took a snack break in a spot called Shady Grove inside the Playscape that reminded us of sitting around a campfire. The kids rested on logs while I handed out the hand sanitizer and wipes I brought along. Although the Playscape is located in the midst of lots of lush vegetation, the trees within the playground itself are still small. A natural canopy may eventually provide more relief from the hot sun, so in the meantime, bring hats and sunscreen as well.
Where Should I Park and Where Are the Bathrooms?
Parking is available near the Woodway Entrance and near the 610 Entrance. If you want the quickest entry into the heart of the Arboretum (including the Nature Playscape), park at the Woodway Entrance. Parking is free on Thursdays and $5 for all other days. The easiest and most convenient way to pay for parking is to use the ParkHouston app. Download it before you get there to save time. You can also pay at one of the two parking meters located in each parking loop, which accept credit card payments. The parking fee is good for 8 hours.
Bathrooms are located near in the Nature Center building not too far from the Playscape. The entrances to both bathrooms are accessible from outside.
Balancing on a log in the lumber yard.
What Else Is There to Do at the Arboretum?
In addition to hiking the trails, observing the wildlife around the ponds, and relaxing in the open green areas, families can enjoy benches throughout the property, so that parents can watch their children play while enjoying the calming sense that comes from being surrounded by trees.
And since you’ve paid for 8 hours of parking, you might as well get your money’s worth with one or more of these activities:
Print a trail map from the website or pick up a complimentary one from the Gift Shop in the Nature Center. If you’re looking for a flat trail for little feet, any of them besides the Ravine Trail will let you walk around the Arboretum easily with little ones, without having to worry about anyone stumbling on inclines.
All trails are basically circular and you can eventually return to where you began. The Outer Loop is the longest trail at less than 2 miles. Several of the trails pass by ponds where you can spy sunbathing turtles, small fish, and birds. You’ll likely hear squirrels overhead in the trees as you walk along the nice wide paths. You might be lucky and spy a rabbit enjoying its own hike through the underbrush.
A great picnic spot is right at the end of the Ravine Trail. Pack a soft-sided cooler in a couple of backpacks and hike through the trail to get to the Event Lawn, an open green space near one end of the circular trail. Spread out a blanket and enjoy being surrounded by tall trees while you rest and munch.
Go inside the Nature Center and enter the Discovery Room to explore and learn about the different Arboretum habitats and wildlife. Be aware that the Discovery Room may be reserved for field trips on weekdays between 9am and 1pm.
Lots of different family and children’s programming is coming back to the Arboretum, from Tyke Hikes to indoor and outdoor “classroom” presentations. Check the online schedule for updated activities.
All photos by author