Playing at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s new Little Explorers Nature Play Garden. Credit: Natasha Dillinger
It’s hard to top a scalloped hammerhead shark swimming overhead or watching an elephant grab a trunkful of leaves, but some of my kids’ most memorable zoo experiences have been decidedly smaller-scale.
The new Little Explorers Nature Play Garden at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium invites connection with nature in a way that feels much more accessible to the toddler set. My 3-year-old and I headed down to get a sneak peek and could have stayed all day!
The new Little Explorers Nature Play Garden opens to the public Friday, April 1, 2022. Entry to the play garden is included with zoo admission or membership.
Unstructured play in a natural setting
When it came time to revamp the former camel ride area, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) connected with its sister organization, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, to see what play elements worked well in Trek’s ultra-popular nature-inspired playground, called Kids’ Trek. The clear consensus showed that kids need opportunities for unstructured play with sensory inputs derived from nature. The new Little Explorers space delivers this in spades.
We had barely crossed through the entrance when my son asked to go investigate the “Builder’s Deck,” a table full of fir cones and log slices. He patiently tested out which pieces would rest on top of others until his improvised wooden tower inevitably toppled down. Similar disasters with Duplo bricks at home often end in a tantrum, but he just picked up the pieces and tried another arrangement.
One of the most unusual structures is a kid-size nest crafted from rebar woven with pliable branches. Pretending to be a hummingbird, my son grabbed some of the extra willow stems resting on the ground and set to work weaving them into the walls.
PDZA resourcefully salvaged local materials to build the nest and many of the other garden structures, which I appreciated as an eco- and budget-friendly design strategy. Since most materials are renewable, parents don’t have to stress that their kids will break things and can let them explore freely.
Designed with preschoolers in mind
While all ages are welcome, it’s clear the new space was built with the preschool crew in mind. (Older siblings can take a turn at the larger Kids’ Zone). The wooden balancing planks (which reminded us of the obstacle course at Redmond’s recently opened Westside Park) and hollow logs are situated at a lower height so that little legs can climb them independently.
Stepping stones are set close together and invite toddlers to identify which pollinators might enjoy the adjacent flowers, based on the images printed on them.
Speaking of which, over 60 varieties of plants will thrive in the new garden space. Most of the flowering varieties will reach peak bloom in early to mid-summer when pollinators like butterflies, and mason and leafcutter bees can enjoy them alongside human visitors.
A sensory garden located near bamboo chimes allows kids to smell and feel fragrant herbs at a height appropriate for little noses.
Meet the bugs
It’s natural to be a bit shy around garden insects, but starting next month, PDZA is moving its Bugs Alive programming to the intimate garden theater space where kids can meet bugs in a welcoming environment. While most garden interactions are meant to be informal and flexible, these shows will operate on a twice-daily schedule to allow families to plan their visit.
During our preview, we got to peek at a diverse array of bugs, including a rainbow stag beetle (whose shiny ridged shell inspired the shimmery effect in car paint), an emperor scorpion, Peruvian cave roaches and a tarantula!
Future shows may use a camera and video monitor to help everyone get a closer look, but on our visit, we used a UV flashlight to observe how the scorpion’s shell fluoresces and magnifying glasses to zoom in on the tarantula’s hairy legs. Learning about the bugs’ diet and lifestyle helped minimize the scare factor for me, and my son did a little happy dance when he got to peek at each crawly critter.
Nature play for all
Part of creating an inviting space means making sure that all kids feel welcome. The play garden’s design features an ADA-accessible path made of firm gravel. The layout of the theater space allows for wheelchairs to pull up close to the stage. The Builder’s Deck is intentionally set at a wheelchair-friendly height, while the nest offers a more quiet hiding spot for kids with sensory sensitivities.
Families who use wheels — wheelchair or stroller — will want to note that some of the play surface area is mulch, which can be trickier to navigate.
Make a day of it
The play garden is conveniently located across from the Pearl Street Sea Grille (reopening around Memorial Day) and right around the corner from the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater, so it’s a great place to grab a snack and get out your wiggles before a show (Wild Wonders shows resume May 7).
Parents of potty-training toddlers will appreciate a mere 10-second dash (yes, I timed it) across the walkway to the restrooms. More interactive experiences are available through keeper talks, budgie visits and animal experiences like Groovy Goats.
In a world where everything seems bigger than they are, preschoolers will appreciate the kid-sized nature play at the new Little Explorers Play Garden. Tearing them away might be the hardest part of your visit, so bring a book and sip a coffee while you wait.
If you go...
Hours: Starting April 1, the nature play garden is open and accessible any time the zoo is open. Hours change seasonally. Spring hours in effect starting April 1 are 9 a.m.–3:30 p.m. daily. Check seasonal hours at the website.
Admission: Entry into the play garden is included with zoo admission or membership. Admission is $18–$20 for adults and teens ages 13 and older; admission for children ages 3–12 is $14–$15. Tots ages 2 and younger enter free. Timed-entry tickets are currently required, except for members. A household membership (two adults plus dependents) costs $165.
Parking: The zoo has a large, free parking lot.
Snack time: We stopped at Olympia Coffee for a hot beverage before our visit and picked up Taco Street tacos and Macadon macarons for a treat at the Waterfront Market at Ruston for lunch before our drive home.
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