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Start your family summer “playcation” at the Wildflower Center

Kids march in the butterfly parade during the grand opening of the Luci and Ian Family Garden. Credit: Brian Birzer.

A world of adventure awaits you just a stoneís throw from downtown Austin this summer at the Wildflower Center. Whether you want a wildflower fix and a nature walk or havenít seen the Centerís latest family-friendly garden, there is plenty for adults and kids to explore on site this summer.

Get Dirty and Stumped

The Luci and Ian Family Garden that opened last month has doubled the maintained garden space on site while offering engaging spaces to play outdoors.

Top: Experimenting with water at the Watering Holes. Credit: Jessica Pages. Bottom: Looking for birds from the giant bird nests. Credit: John Clark.

Designed by renowned landscape architect and artist W. Gary Smith, the Family Garden has many interactive elements, such as a cave with a waterfall flowing over the top, and “watering holes.” †The latter are limestone rocks chocked full of holes, and kids — and the kids’ at heart — can use a hand pump nearby to fill watering cans to pour over the rocks.

Alice Nance Jansen, the center’s education manager, notes that young children may simply enjoy seeing how the water changes the color and temperature of the rocks. For older kids, the activity can become a lesson about aquifers, demonstrating that what we put into them goes directly through the porous limestone into our soon-to-be drinking water.

“We want families to explore nature here in a way that involves free play, but that has the potential to have a lasting impact, [whether it’s just helping kids feel more comfortable in nature or informing visitors’ world view],” Jansen says.

Fun is definitely a part of the nature play that’s encouraged in the garden, she adds. Among the popular features is the Dirt Dig, an area with hand shovels, baking sheets and other accessories for kids to make mud cakes with or dig for treasures (four on-site bathrooms offer clean-up space afterward).

Among other favorites? The Stumpery and its logs for climbing all over, and Giant Birds’ Nests with wooden eggs inside that give children a chance to create their own fantasy worlds of dinosaurs, birds or other nest builders. “I’ve seen smaller kids in there [the nests] really using their imagination.” Jansen adds.

The 4.5-acre addition also showcases gardens with drought-tolerant native plants, mulches made from recycled materials and other features for adults interested in considering sustainable yard options.

Get Wild at Nature Nights

Expanding visitors’ perspective is also the aim of the education department’s Nature Nights series. The free programming for families on six Thursday nights starts June 12, and includes hands-on learning, hikes, expert talks and scavenger hunts based on each night’s nature topics. Plants and Play will be the focus that first night out in the Family Garden from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Family activities include a chance to visit a plant petting zoo, play giant chess on the spacious Play Lawn, and sing along to children’s music by Bill Oliver and the Otter Space Band.

Left: Dinosaur footprints cast from real fossil footprints originally from the Paluxy River in Texas, lead to the creek. Credit: Jessica Pages. Right: Cave art inspired by ancient images painted among the rocks of the Lower Pecos River and the artist Keith Haring. Credit: Dennis Fagan.

That following Thursday, fossils will be featured during a night of jumping between dinosaur footprints, recreating ancient cave wall paintings called petroglyphs and other fun. Experts from the Paleontological Society of Austin will display fossils, and Austin Public Library will offer story time inside the Little House (a play room near the main courtyard for drawing, playing with puzzles and more).

Click here for a full list of Nature Nights.

Playing on the Giant Play Lawn during the Family Garden grand opening festivities. Credit: Brian Birzer.

Family Garden is Cool, Too

For visitors seeking shade, the new family garden’s Robb Family Pavilion offers covered, open-air space for picnicking or viewing a nearby meadow and the Family Garden’s Play Lawn. That roomy lawn has space for Frisbee throwing, kite flying, or for kids to climb on coyote sculptures that are among the many depicting a dozen-plus wild animals throughout the garden.

A shaded outdoor classroom with tree stumps seats is nearby, as is outdoor exercise equipment. Families can also step into the coolness of the garden’s Hill Country Grotto, with cave art inspired by ancient images painted among the rocks of the Lower Pecos River and the artist Keith Haring.

Next to the caves and grotto rests a low spiraling limestone wall covered with mosaic tiles representing spirals that occur in nature. To connect the dots, Texas native plants grow nearby that offer examples of spirals in their flowers or other parts.

“Kids are playing [in the Family Garden],” Jansen notes, “but they’re learning through experience at the same time.”

Other places to beat the heat include the Visitors Gallery exhibits, the Little House, the McDermott art space, and the café. Don’t forget to stop at the Store to pick up some fun items — from books to games and toys — to play with all summer long.

Kids hanging out with H-E-Buddy during the Family Garden grand opening festivities. Credit: Brian Birzer.

Learn more about the Luci and Ian Family Garden and consider free access with a family membership.

See full Nature Nights details, and note that admission will be waived the day of each Nature Night thanks to sponsor H-E-B. www.wildflower.org/nature

By Barbra A. Rodriguez††††

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center