Healthy, happy kids who run around outside, yell, laugh, and get muddy and then come inside, clean up, wolf down a square meal, and cuddle on the couch with a book… That’s what we all want, right?
But with our busy, scheduled lives, it takes planning and deliberate action to protect our families’ outside play time. If we don’t, we run the risk of “nature deficit disorder,” as described by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. Louv helped create the Children & Nature Network, which offers inspiration for combating nature deficits, such as by creating a Family Nature Club.
In my experience, lasting changes start with small steps. When we made our summer bucket list, we made a goal to spend time outside and visit some local, new-to-us nature spots. I would like to share with you three great places to experience nature in the San Antonio area: the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Cibolo Nature Center & Farm, and the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center. Try to visit all three this fall, whether for a quiet walk or for a festive special event.
The San Antonio Botanical Garden is just north of downtown, near Fort Sam Houston and The DoSeum. We are members and regular visitors. Last year, I wrote about their birdhouses exhibit. The current exhibits include a Rainforest Adventure maze through September 20.
Have you seen those giant, colorful Adirondack chairs around the garden lately? They are a great place to pose for pictures, and a preview of Big Garden, Little Me, starting October 3, an exhibit that will feature more humongous backyard items.
In the 1880s, the land that became the Botanical Garden was a city water reservoir; now, it’s part of San Antonio Parks and Recreation, a great place for parties like ¡Primavera!, and undergoing a major expansion. Grab a map at the visitors’ center—a restored carriage house—and visit gardens in many styles: the formal garden, the old-fashioned garden, the Kumamoto En garden, and more. Learn about xeriscape at WaterSaver Lane, and see exotic plants from around the world in the conservatory complex.
The best part of the Botanical Garden for learning about our local environment is the Texas Native Trail, featuring three zones: Hill County, East Texas Pineywoods, and South Texas. Walking trails wind through the zones with their distinctive terrain, trees, flowers, and reconstructed historic buildings.
The South Texas zone includes a secluded birdwatching spot—a favorite quiet place for a picnic lunch.
The Botanical Garden offers educational opportunities for families, including the four-month-long Children’s Vegetable Garden Program, where families work in teams under the guidance of master gardeners. The fall program is full, but keep an eye open for spring sign-ups. To find a community garden in your neighborhood, see the directory from Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas. The Botanical Garden also hosts recurring children’s activities, such as Little Sprout Mondays and Animal Botanical Saturdays.
The Botanical Garden is hosting some family-friendly special events this fall, including BOOtanica, on October 24 from 9:00 A.M.–3:00 P.M., and Family Flashlight Night, on November 6 from 6:00–8:30 P.M.
The Cibolo Nature Center and Farm offers a closer look at the Hill Country ecosystem. It’s located northwest of San Antonio, in Boerne. The Nature Center is part of a city park, but remains in its natural state, aside from the creation of trails and amenities like picnic tables. The visitors’ center is in a relocated and restored historic building. The Nature Center grounds also include the original farmhouse of Herff Ranch, the site of a Saturday farmers market.
Walking the trails helps you experience the Hill Country ecosystem. You begin in a prairie full of rustling grasses, nodding flowers, and chirping crickets. As you descend to the creek, you walk under the shade of live oaks and encounter tall cypress trees along the banks of the creek. My kids and I put on water shoes and waded in the clear stream alongside tiny fish.
The Nature Center is built for fun, too. There are picnic shelters, a treehouse, sandboxes, and replica dinosaur tracks for the dinosaur-obsessed. They host recurring children’s programs, such as Little Explorers and Mother Nature’s Story Time.
This fall, the Nature Center is hosting seasonal special events for families. Science in Nature, on September 19 from 10:00 A.M.–2:00 P.M. at the Herff Farm Inspiration Garden, will feature scientists and science teachers leading outdoor activities to help children learn about the natural world. The Nature Center’s monthly Kids’ Club activities include Insect Collecting, on September 12 from 10:00–11:00 A.M., and the Fall Festival, on October 10 from 10:30 A.M.–1:30 P.M. at the Herff Farm, with traditional favorites like pumpkin carving, a hay maze, donuts on a string, and face painting.
Start your visit at the historic Leeper House, relocated from the grounds of the McNay. At the visitors’ center, you can pick up a trail map and an explorer backpack and ask the staff for tips about which species of birds have been seen around lately.
Near the visitors’ center, the Upland Trail winds through cultivated gardens with flowers to attract birds and butterflies, whereas the Native Plant Trail features indigenous species. A short drive (or a long walk) along the top of a dyke will bring you closer to the ponds, polders, and basins that attract so much wildlife: turtles, rabbits, dragonflies, white pelicans, and many other seasonal species of birds. (Not sure what you’re seeing? Beginners can take birding tours.) The still waters around Mitchell Lake are lined with willow, mesquite, retama, and hackberry trees; the grasslands are speckled with sunflowers and prickly pear cactus.
This fall, Mitchell Lake is hosting several special events for families. Critters of the Night, on September 19 from 7:30–9:00 P.M., is an opportunity to look for nocturnal creatures like owls and frogs. The free Hoot and Harvest Festival, on October 17 from 9:00 A.M.–4:00 P.M., includes hayride tours, a live raptor show, native plant sales, and kids’ crafts.
The San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Cibolo Nature Center and Farm, and the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center are some of the best places in town for nature education, but there are many other opportunities. Nature Rocks San Antonio has up-to-date event listings. Texas Parks & Wildlife and Bexar County have park directories. San Antonio Parks and Recreation has a list of Greenway Trails and a list of Natural Areas, including Hardberger Park, which has many kid-friendly events. If you would rather learn about Five Great San Antonio Parks that Don’t Rhyme with “Shmardberger”, Katy has you covered. In the middle of town, the Judson Nature Trails and the Japanese Tea Garden are hidden treasures. Last fall, Maggie compiled a list of family-friendly hikes in and around San Antonio.
When the fall weather (eventually) cools down, create opportunities to play outside with your kids and explore some natural spaces. As a family, you can all learn more about living things and where we live in South Texas and the Hill Country. By enjoying fresh air, exercise, and sunshine together, you will help your kids build lifelong habits for health, happiness, and caring about our environment.